Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Peace on Earth

I had spoken with one of my housemates about the research I had been doing about bonobos and chimpanzees (see my post of 7/30/08) as well as the research of James Prescott on the human need for affection and it's relationship to war and aggression (in my post of 7/28/08). One day I found a book by my computer: Peacemaking among Primates by Frans de Waal. It turned out that my housemate had a copy he bought long ago and found it among his books. He thought I'd be interested in it.

Of course, I was. The book details the ways that reconciliation is practiced among five primate species: chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys, stump-tailed monkeys (also known as the bear-macaque), bonobos, and humans. For anyone who assumes that other animals don't 'kiss and makeup', the book is a revelation.

Chimpanzees may be patriarchal and aggressive, but they also understand cooperation. While there are dominants and subordinates in their hierarchies, there is also a lot of mutual reassurance between them that, as de Waal puts it, "makes rivalry among males less divisive... The males' hierarchy canalizes aggression in predictible directions and unifies the competitors." This is not so true for female chimps, who seem to hold grudges. Males also form coalitions that allow them to take power and stay in power. De Waal details one series of coalitions that I realized was also written about by Matt Ridley in The Origin of Virtue. (See my post of 9/14/08.)

Rhesus monkeys are a variety of the primate genus known as macaques. (The Latin name for the genus is Macaca--the same word that got Republican George Allen in trouble in 2006.) According to de Waal, Rhesus females have a society ordered by strong matrilineal hierarchy. The daughters of high status females also become high status females and the daughters of low status females are low status females. De Waal claims that "Young females stay with their mothers and sisters to integrate for life into one of the tightest and most complicated social systems known in the animal kingdom." Males do not stay with their families past adolescence, but come and go based "... on contests among the males themselves, and also perhaps what the female community thinks of them." They are a very aggressive species. "The frequency and fierceness of attacks among these animals is amazing." De Waal details how within their very rigid social structure, reconciliation occurs much more often between males and males, and males and females, than between females and females, and how the female-female reconciliation that does take place is mostly between female monkeys of similar social status.

In contrast to the rhesus macaques, the stump-tailed monkeys (another macaque species) have a matrilineal hierarchy that is looser and "relatively egalitarian" (at least compared to the rhesus). They have frequent reconciliations (after over half the conflicts) and, unlike the rhesus monkeys who often reconcile by 'accidentally' ending up in close proximity, stumptails look each other in the face and sometimes have very public peacemakings, with loud noises so that their whole group is aware of what has happened.

The chapter on bonobos mostly has information similar to what I've written earlier about them. (See my post of 7/30/08.) De Waal talks about his studies that indicate a strong link between food and sex for the bonobos and says that "erotic interactions may be essential for group harmony". He goes on to say "Sexual conflict resolution is the key to bonobo social organization, and individuals learn its strategic value at an early age."

De Waal devotes his final chapter to a fifth primate species: humans. He talks about the interconnections between aggression and reconciliation in human history. He dicusses the need to save face in order to reconcile and tells the story of a couple among the forest people in the Congo that had a very public fight. They began tearing their house of sticks and leaves apart, each of them becoming more and more miserable in the process. Finally the man got an idea after they had torn the leaves off the walls and were about to remove the final poles. He suddenly "told his wife that she could leave the sticks alone; it was only the leaves on the roof that were dirty." She caught on and the two of them began pretending that they weren't engaged in a horrible argument at all but only taking apart the house to clean the leaves. The two of them actually "carried the leaves to the stream and washed them." No one in the village believed this but everyone played along to support the reconciliation. De Waal looks at inequality and human reconciliation and mentions the tendency of nonhierarchal groups toward conflict and fission. Yet he also points out how well female bonobos get along without hierarchy and says this is a subject deserving on more study. He finishes the book by saying that the aggressive tendencies of our species are unlikely to go away, but neither is our 'heritage of reconciliation'. We may be war-like but we are also good at making peace.

Quote of the Day: "Forgiveness is not, as some people seem to believe, a mysterious and sublime idea that we owe to a few millennia of Judeo-Christianity. It did not originate in the minds of people and cannot therefore be appropriated by an ideology or religion. The fact that monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation behavior means that it is probably over thirty million years old..." - Frans de Waal

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