Sunday, May 25, 2014

Egalitarianism in Nature

What do other primates tell us about inequality?
Among social animals, inequality is a fact of life. Millions of ants do all the work for one reproducing queen. Troops of chimps form male-dominated hierarchies, males bossing females around and forming a pecking order with one highly aggressive alpha male on top. Poorly paid migrant workers pick grapes for $200-dollar bottles of wine enjoyed by royalty and corporate executives. But sometimes the top dog gets toppled, inequality diminishes, and equality prevails.

On a peaceful Sunday afternoon in Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, as tourists and their guides looked on, a fight broke out between Pimu, the alpha male, and four of his underlings—and they killed him. Chimps were known to form such large gangs and attack and kill chimps from other troops, but typically coalitions that challenge a chimp within a troop consist of just two or three individuals, and no one dies. A long time had passed since the males in this troop had had to cooperate to defend their territory, and with just six females for the group’s 10 males, competition for mates was fierce. Moreover, “Pimu was a particularly violent individual; therefore, the other males might not have liked him,” says Stefano Kaburu, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. He and his colleagues described the attack in 2013.

An aggressive male also roused the ire of a bonobo troop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bonobos have been called the hippie apes because conflicts are rare and they have a lot of sex. Male bonobos are bigger than the females and have bigger teeth, but unlike male chimps they don’t boss the females around. Nor do males form coalitions....“But they are not as peaceful as has been described,” says Gottfried Hohmann, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Pecking orders do exist, and females do bond, enabling them to dominate the males...Hohmann and his colleagues witnessed the head male try to attack a young female carrying an infant. Chimps often practice infanticide to get rid of rivals’ offspring and to hasten a female’s return to fertility, but this usually doesn’t happen in bonobos. This offending male was the son of the dominant female, but even so, the females immediately came to the target’s defense. They drove the offending male away—for good. “This is one lesson that humans can learn,” says Hohmann. “Our picture of dominant males over females is not always true.”

These two recent incidents in our closest relatives help “establish the fact that our human nature is set up so that we will resent authority and being bossed around, and we are able to form coalitions to do something about that,” says Christopher Boehm, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Southern California. Lions, meerkats, wolves, and dolphins can all work together, but they don’t seem to take the next step and turn on undesirable leaders. The fact that other primates do “helps explain modern democracy,” he proposes.
One group of baboons [in Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya] lived near the garbage dump of a tourist lodge and foraged there; another group lived about a mile away. Males from the latter troop that were big and strong enough to fight their way past the rival group and into the garbage dump did so, forgoing daily grooming with their own troop members to get access to a rich food supply. But one day contaminated meat was left in the dump, and these males (along with most of the troop living near the dump) succumbed to tuberculosis. Their loss changed the atmosphere of their home troop....With the most aggressive males gone... there were far fewer confrontations among the remaining males. This much more benevolent culture persisted for more than a decade, even as new males joined the troop. The newcomers took their cues from those already there and maintained an unusually peaceful culture.
Some animal species regularly maintain egalitarian societies. The reasons behind equal sharing of mates, food, or other resources vary. In some cases, social control of others just doesn’t work. In others, equality seems to arise as a way to keep a group strong.
These Animals Stick Up for Social Justice (Slate) And, related to that last anecdote:
The forest troop was markedly different after the deaths — calmer, less violent, with more grooming and much more positive interactions than before. He decided not to study them, as they were clearly waiting for other aggressive, dominant males to show up and return the troop to its old, violent ways.

An assistant was sent to do a census on the forest troop years later, and returned to Sapolsky very excited. Sapolsky reluctantly agreed to see what was so shocking. He was stunned to find that the members of the forest troop were still acting “friendly,” and doing things no baboons had ever been observed doing before. Male baboons never groom each other — except in the forest troop. Males have no role in raising their kids, and never hold/carry their kids — except in the forest troop. The average distance between troop members was reduced by more that 50 percent.

Sapolsky was eager to learn how the troop, which now seemed far too peace-and-love oriented to defend itself, had managed to avoid being taken over. Then, one day, a violent, dominant male fell upon them and attempted to subjugate the troop to his rule. The troop instantly turned on him and literally tore him limb from limb. When Sapolsky went out to study the troop the next day, the baboons were quietly grooming each other as usual, and on the ground beside them was the severed face of the would-be usurper. The group managed to avoid a return to violence by reserving all their aggression for the males who occasionally tried to fill the power vacuum.
How to Fix Society, One Baboon Group at a Time (Order of the Good Death) Maybe our CEOs, financiers, and politicians need to be torn limb from limb. In any case, it seems the alpha males set the tone of society.

1 comment:

  1. I remember a lecture by Dr. Robert Sapolsky where he states that there are significant differences between the behavior of humans and that of our primate cousins.


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