Holding babies, making deals: A primatologist says male chimps act eerily similar to human politicians

There are always power plays.
There are always power plays.
Image: Reuters/Herwig Prammer
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This question originally appeared on Quora: How does human political scheming and posturing mirror chimpanzee behavior? Answer by Frans de Waal, biologist, primatologist, professor at Emory University.

During political debates, I always advise turning off the sound on the television set. This way, we ignore the language and content of the debate and focus better on the nonverbal communication (postures, gestures, facial expressions). This time, however, in the Republican debates, it was hardly necessary to remove the sound as the content was largely irrelevant. The candidates kept insulting each other, spouting falsehoods, questioning each other’s motives, even making anatomical comparisons. In fact, they were doing what apes do best: intimidate, threaten, puff up their shoulders, and beat their own chests.

I wrote Chimpanzee Politics in 1982, because the power politics of male chimps is based on very similar behavior to that of politicians—power depends on the alliances that they form, the undermining of their rivals’ alliances, and deal-making, such as allowing supporters access to food and mates while keeping rivals away. In chimps, dominance is not decided by physical strength, but rather by how much support a male gets from the community. Not unlike presidential candidates,who hold babies up in the air as soon as the cameras are rolling, male chimps vying for power develop a sudden interest in infants, which they hold and tickle in order to curry favor with the females. Female support can make a huge difference in rivalries among males, so making a good impression is crucial.

What intrigues me most at this moment in time in the US is the presence of a female candidate, and the prospect of an extended campaign between a male and a female; both being dominant characters. The gender mismatch changes the dynamics completely. The way males intimidate other males is predictable and well accepted. Men insult each other, make rude jokes, try to look big and strong—it is all part of the game. Taller men have an advantage, which is why short politicians (Dukakis, Sarkozy, Berlusconi) like to stand on a box during photo ops. The same approach doesn’t work against a female rival. Size hardly matters. Debate content becomes more important.

On top of this, there is the female solidarity that complicates matters. In chimps, females rarely band together, but they do so without hesitation when they face male hostility. The best way for a male chimpanzee to get into trouble is to be violent to a high-ranking female or try to force her into submission or sex. This may trigger a mass revolt! It is not hard to see why: all females stand to gain from drawing a line. I am curious to see how this will play out in the coming election season. My prediction is that a female cannot win by going aggressively after her male opponent, because female aggression is not looked upon favorably. On the other hand, male intimidation tactics won’t work. She will be able to count on massive support if she is being disrespected by her male opponent and fights back. Standing her ground against male insults will arouse instant sympathy.

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