Sunday, January 08, 2017

Biological Historicity and the Gombe Chimpanzee War

Yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of the beginning of the Gombe Chimpanzee War, which began on January 7, 1974, and ended on June 5, 1978. 

Since 1960, Jane Goodall had been studying the chimpanzees along the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania (in what was first called the Gombe Stream Reserve and then later Gombe National Park).  She became a mythic celebrity through the articles and television documentaries about her work produced by the National Geographic Society.  Initially, she seemed to have discovered a chimp Garden of Eden free of violent conflict.  Even her name--Jane Goodall!--seemed to fit the myth.

But then, at the beginning of 1973, she and her colleagues noticed that the chimps had formed two separate communities--the northern or Kasakela community, based on the valleys of the Kakombe and Kasakela rivers, and the southern or Kahama community, based on the valley of the Kahama river.  By early 1974, they saw the first of a series of attacks by the Kasakela community on the Kahama community, which led over four years to the complete annihilation of the Kahama community.

Here is how Goodall described the first attack:
"In January 1974 a large mixed party of Kasakela individuals traveled southward. At 14115 hours six adult males  (Hugo, Humphrey, Faben, Figan, Jomeo, and Sherry), an adolescent male (Goblin), and a female in estrus (Gigi) began to travel more purposefully southward. The others stayed behind. From time to time calls were heard from the south, and the chimpanzees began to travel quickly and silently in that direction. Suddenly they came upon Godi, who was feeding in a tree.  He leaped down and fled. Humphrey, Jomeo, and Figan were close on his heels running three abreast; the others followed. Humphrey grabbed Godi's leg, pulled him to the ground, then sat on his head and held his legs with both hands, pinning him to the ground.  Humphrey remained in this position while the other males attacked, so that Godi had no chance to escape or defend himself."
"Figan, Jomeo, Sherry, and Evered beat on Godi's shoulder blades and back with their hands and fists; Hugo bit him several times. Gigi raced around and around, screaming loudly. Goblin kept out of the way."
"Finally Humphrey released his victim, and the others stopped their attack, which had lasted ten minutes. Hugo, screaming loudly, stood upright and hurled a large rock at Godi; it fell short.  The attacking party left and moved rapidly to the south, uttering pant-hoots and displaying.  Throughout the attack, all had been screaming loudly.  Later, calls were heard farther south.  The Kasakela party hurried toward them, then stopped, eventually returning to their core area."
"After the attack, Godi remained motionless for a few moments, then as his attackers moved off, he slowly got up and looked after them, screaming.  he was very badly wounded: a great gash extended from his lower lip down the left side of his chin, and his upper lip was swollen.  He was bleeding from his nose and from cuts in the side of his mouth.  There were puncture marks on his right leg and between his ribs on the right side, and he had a few small wounds on his left forearm.  Godi was never seen again, despite the fact that research staff continued to work in the Kahama area until 1978." (Goodall 1986, 506-507)
Notice that all of these chimps have proper names, which convey the individual uniqueness of each chimp's personality and life history.  For example, Gigi is the only female in the attacking Kasakela group.  In Goodall's  "Who's Who" of the Gombe chimps, she describes some of the distinctive traits of Gigi as a remarkably male-like female: "Gigi's behavior is very like that of a male. She is large and strong for a female, and often aggressive. Her display rate is high, and she sometimes performs waterfall and streambed displays, behavior very rarely seen in other females. She is assertive in her interactions with community members, even on occasion standing up to attacks by adult males, and since 1967 has unequivocally been the top-ranking female. She has been seen to hunt and capture prey more than any other female and is quite fearless in her determination to stand up to the defensive attacks of adult monkeys" (ibid., 66-67).

Goodall's description of the attack on Godi is part of her detailed military history of the four year war in which the Kasakela community extinguishes the Kahama community and takes over its territory.  The military expansion of the Kasakela community is stopped when they reach the boundary of the Kalande community, which is too strong to conquer.

Here we see what I call biological historicity: biology is a historical science of contingent events in the lives of individual organisms.  Those who insist on a dichotomy between biology and history, and who argue that only human beings have a history, so that human history cannot be part of biology, are mistaken.  In fact, all organisms are individually unique with unique life histories.  That becomes particularly clear in the study of animal behavior, which must be a study of individual animals living through the history of their communities. But to do this requires long-term studies of particular communities in which individual animals can be identified and followed through their life histories.  This must be done to achieve what I have called the biopolitical science of political animals, which moves through three levels of history--natural history, cultural history, and biographical history.

We can see this in Goodall's study of the Gombe chimps.  It takes many years of continuous observation to identify the individuals in the community and then to see how they develop over their entire lives.  Some chimps have been known to live into their 50s, although most chimps are lucky to live to their late 30s or early 40s.  So at least 30 to 40 years of observation are required to see complete life histories.  And it takes even longer to see the course of history over multiple generations.  For many reasons, it's hard for scientists to do this.  They must devote many decades of their lives to one study site, and they must secure funding to support their work over all these years, which is difficult to do.  If Goodall had left Gombe after 10 or 15 years of work, she would never have seen the Gombe Chimpanzee War; and she might have continued to report that chimps don't kill members of their own species.

It is remarkable that such long-term studies of animal communities with records of the life histories of recognizable individuals have been extremely rare, and they have grown only in recent decades (Clutton-Brock and Sheldon 2010a, 2010b).  The longest-running field studies are of passerine birds in the Netherlands beginning in the 1930s (Kluijver 1951).  Thousands of birds were banded so that they could be individually identified over their lives.  Since the 1960s, long-term field studies with records of individual life histories over 20 to 30  years have been conducted for different bird species and for mammals (including marmots, lions, savannah baboons, bighorn sheep, and red deer, as well as chimpanzees).

Only through such studies can one see how individual animals change as they age, how earlier stages in life history influence later stages, how the social structure of a community arises from the history of relationships between individuals, how each community develops its own unique cultural traditions, how individuals differ in their traits, how genes and environment interact over time, and how the evolutionary process of adaptation to variable circumstances and contingencies works.

In doing this, we see that human beings are not the only animals whose social lives are shaped not just by genetic evolution but also by cultural history and individual life history.  And once we see this, we see that a biosocial science cannot be a purely genetic science, because it must include the study of animal cultural history and animal personalities. (This shows why the political scientists promoting "genopolitics"--John Hibbing, James Fowler, and their colleagues--are wrong in assuming that biopolitics does not include biopolitical history.)

In response to Thomas Aquinas's claim that natural law is "that which nature has taught all animals," such as sexual mating and parental care, many critics have objected that this cannot be true, because animal behavior is rigidly determined by instincts, in contrast to the freedom of human conduct through cultural learning and individual judgment.  But one can recognize the mistake in this objection once one sees that the social life of non-human animals is culturally and individually variable, and thus any biological natural law of animal behavior, including human behavior, must be a historical science of uniquely individual life histories played out in the contingent history of unique communities with unique cultural traditions.


Clutton-Brock, Tim, and Ben C. Sheldon. 2010a. "The Seven Ages of Pan." Science 327:1207-1208.

Clutton-Brock, Time, and Ben C. Sheldon. 2010b. "Individuals and Populations: The Role of Long-Term, Individual-Based Studies of Animals in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology." Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25:562-573.

Goodall, Jane. 1986. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kluijver, H. N. 1951. "The Population Ecology of the Great Tit, Parus m. major L." Ardea 39:1-135.

Some of these points have been elaborated in a previous post that includes links to other pertinent posts.

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