Monday, August 16, 2021

The Lockean Political Rhetoric of Chimpanzees: Dominance, Deference, and Counterdominance

Although chimpanzees do not  have language, they do communicate with one another through sounds, postures, and facial expressions that convey information.  Often that information is about social rank.  An alpha male might engage in a loud display of intimidation that asserts his dominance over the group.  Other chimps might respond to this by signaling their submission to him.  Or they might respond with signs of resistance and defiance.  And some might even signal that they want to overthrow him.  Thus chimps engage in political rhetoric, because they try to persuade one another as to how their social order should be organized.  

We could also identify this chimpanzee political rhetoric as Lockean insofar as subordinate chimpanzees can protest against despotic dominance by the alpha male and thus limit his power, which moves towards the egalitarian social arrangement seen in human hunter-gatherer bands with an egalitarian style of hierarchy in which the leader is only primus inter pares ("first among equals").  This is what Locke saw in the state of nature in which all men are by nature equally free.  Not that all are absolutely equal, because some will have higher status than others, and some will become leaders of their social groups.  But that all adults have the natural right to be free from being unduly subordinated to anyone else without their consent, and that they have the natural right to punish those who threaten their life, liberty, or property (Second Treatise, pars. 4-10, 54, 94, 105).  

To explain the Darwinian evolution of this human state of nature, we should expect to find precursors of this human egalitarianism in our pre-human primate ancestors.  And if we assume that the common ancestor of humans and the African great apes was similar to a chimpanzee, then we might expect to see evolutionary preadaptations for an egalitarian style of dominance in chimpanzee groups.  In fact, as Christopher Boehm has argued, we can see in chimpanzees similarities to the ambivalent political nature of human hunter-gatherers that shows a tense balance between dominance, deference, and counter-dominance (Boehm 1993, 1999).  

Dominance is the natural propensity of individuals to seek the power over others that comes from superior rank in a group.  The political life of primates is organized around dominance hierarchies in which the old tend to have dominance over the young and males tend to have dominance over females, although females can also have a dominance hierarchy, and sometimes coalitions of females can resist male dominance.  This is a political universal for chimpanzees, both in the wild and in captivity; and for human beings throughout history.  Winning or losing dominance is determined by patterns of coalition formation that depend on shifting circumstances and individual decisions.

Deference is the natural propensity of individuals to submit to those who are dominant.  As political universals, deference is the correlative of dominance.  Among the various species of political primates, there are distinctive behavioral cues, both verbal and nonverbal, by which subordinates defer to dominants.

Counter-dominance is the natural propensity of individuals to resist being dominated.  Among some primates, subordinate individuals can resist excessive dominance and thus limit the power of dominant individuals.  Subordinate individuals can form large coalitions to challenge those at the top of the hierarchy.

The variation in this behavior creates differences in dominance style across species.  As Frans de Waal has observed, rhesus monkeys show a "despotic dominance style" in which subordinates cannot challenge dominants; but chimpanzees show an "egalitarian dominance style" in which subordinates can restrain dominants (de Waal 1996).  Dominant chimpanzees are expected to mediate conflicts within the group and to lead the group in conflicts with other groups.  Dominant chimpanzees can be challenged or even deposed if they do not properly carry out their conflict-mediation role.

Like chimpanzee politics, human politics shows a dominance hierarchy that can be egalitarian in style, based on the principle that leaders are only first among equals.  This egalitarianism is most evident among human hunter-gatherers who use various kinds of sanctions (from ridicule and disobedience to ostracism and execution) to punish leaders who become too despotic in their dominance.  This resistance to dominance was probably a crucial part of human evolutionary history in the Paleolithic era (from about two million years ago to 10,000 years ago).  But with the establishment of large bureaucratic states based on agricultural production, which began more than 5,000 years ago, many states have been more despotic than egalitarian.  The emergence and spread of Lockean liberal democracies over the past three centuries is in some ways a return to the egalitarian dominance of the foraging way of life in which subordinates limit the power of dominants.

To the old question in political philosophy as to whether human beings are naturally hierarchical or naturally egalitarian, the answer from biopolitical science is that human beings are both.  Niccolo Machiavelli was right to see that human political nature is torn by the tension between the propensity of the few to dominance and the propensity of the many to submit to dominance while also resisting oppressive dominance.  The history of political practice and political thought turns on this natural ambivalence interacting over time with particular political circumstances and decisions.

As an illustration of this political ambivalence among chimpanzees, here is Jane Goodall's description of an incident she observed in July of 1964 in Gombe:

"Mike, the new alpha, rests in the shade of a tree.  A sudden crashing in the undergrowth heralds the arrival of Goliath, recently deposed from the top position.  Mike does not move as Goliath charges flat out toward him, dragging a huge branch.  At the last moment Goliath turns aside, swings into a nearby tree, and sits motionless.  Only now does Mike begin to display, swaying the vegetation, hurling a few rocks, then climbing into Goliath's tree and swaying branches there.  When he stops, Goliath displays again, leaping ever closer to his adversary until Mike responds.  For a few moments both are wildly swaying foliage within 2 meters of each other; but there is no fight.  They swing to the ground and charge off through the undergrowth, running parallel, then sit staring at each other.  Goliath stands upright and rocks a sapling; Mike hurtles past, throwing a large rock.  For the next twenty-three minutes the performance continues, and during the whole episode the only physical contact between them is when one is hit by the end of a bough swayed by the other.  Finally, after a three-minute pause, Goliath moves rapidly toward Mike, crouches beside him with loud, submissive pant-grunts, and begins to groom him vigorously.  For half a minute, Mike ignores him, then turns and grooms his vanquished rival with equal intensity.  For more than an hour, they groom until both are relaxed and peaceful" (Goodall 1986, 409).

Notice the ambivalent political rhetoric in this incident.  The male dominance hierarchy is determined by the directionality of displays and pant-grunting among the adult males.  Goodall has kept a quantitative record of this for many years so that she can track the ever-changing history of the dominance hierarchy. If an alpha male is secure in his dominance, he displays towards the others in the group, and he receives pant-grunts from the others; but he never pant-grunts toward any of them.  When Goliath displays towards Mike, Goliath is challenging him, attempting to take the alpha position.  Both are feeling aggressive and fearful at the same time.  Each is trying to bluff down the other.  But while Goliath wants dominance, his fear of Mike finally drives him to signal his submission through pant-grunting; and Mike accepts his submission by reconciling with him.

Displays are more common than physical attacks, because chimps would rather avoid the danger of serious physical injuries that come from attacks.  Charging displays are threats that serve to maintain or challenge the existing order of dominance.  But reversals in rank among the males are usually the result of physical fights.  And while size and strength are important for success in displays and fights, psychological traits--such as intelligence, ingenuity, boldness, persistence, and shrewdness in forming coalitions--are crucial for success.  Mike was actually one of the smaller adult males when he overthrew Goliath, but he figured out how to use empty kerosene cans in his noisy charging displays to shock the other males and throw them into confusion until they submitted to him.  As I indicated in a previous post, Boehm and Goodall have compared Donald Trump's bombastic rhetoric to Mike's displays.

The vocal rhetoric of chimpanzees is complex.  Goodall and other primatologists have identified at least 32 distinct calls that convey particular emotions or feelings (Goodall 1986, 127; Arcadi 2018, 116-23).  One of them is the pant-grunt that Goliath uttered to signal a feeling of social apprehension and submission.  Another is the waa-bark that signals anger and defiance.  Dominant individuals can use waas as a warning to subordinates.  But from his careful study of chimp videotaped vocalizations, Boehm has concluded that most waas are used by subordinates to express their defiance of dominants (Boehm 1999, 164-69).

Boehm has seen this illustrated by what de Waal reports in his studies of the chimps in the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Georgia.  When new adult males were introduced into the community, the Yerkes females acted as a power coalition that rejected males seeking the alpha male position.  Finally, they accepted Jimoh as the alpha male.  But when he acted as a bully, the females punished him.  

For example, one day Jimoh saw that Socko, an adolescent male, was mating with one of Jomoh's favorite females.  Jimoh chased Socko around the enclosure and refused to stop.  Socko was screaming and defecating in fear.

Several females nearby began to waa bark.  They looked around to see the reaction of others.  When others began to join in the waa barking, the intensity of their protests became deafening.  Finally, Jimoh got the message.  He broke off his attack to avoid any further attacks from the females.  It was as though the chimps were taking a vote, and Jimoh had lost the vote.  If Jimoh had not stopped his attack, he might have been overthrown and even killed.

Here are the evolved primate roots of Lockean political rhetoric, in which we see the political ambivalence in the tense balance between dominance, deference, and counter-dominance.


Arcadi, Adam. 2018. Wild Chimpanzees: Social Behavior of an Endangered Species. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Boehm, Christopher. 1993. "Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy." Current Anthropology 34:227-254.

Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

de Waal, Frans. 1996. Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Xenophon said...

By the way, have you seen the recent evidence uncovered by the Locke scholar Felix Waldmann, which proves Locke’s knowledge of and youthful admiration for Hobbes:
For Hobbes, the ultimate ground of equality in the state if nature is that any one man can sneak up and kill any other. Is the ground of equality in the state of nature ultimately the same in Locke?

Larry Arnhart said...

Thanks for this reference.

I will be writing a post on Hobbes, Locke, and Boehm's "execution hypothesis."