[monkeywire] Going Ape

Gregory Rehbein suedehead73 at yahoo.com
Fri Nov 15 03:50:03 EST 2002


Going ape
When it comes to the study of warfare, primatology has never commanded much respect. Maybe it’s time it did.


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CHIMP MY STYLE: Richard Wrangham is brimming with theories about September 11 - many of them based on the behavior he's witnessed among chimpanzees in  Uganda's Kiblae Forest


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STICKING POINT: as instruments of destruction go, tree limbs aren't usually held in high esteem. But put one in the hand of a chimp and it's a different matter altogether


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CHIMP MY STYLE: Richard Wrangham is brimming with theories about September 11 - many of them based on the behavior he's witnessed among chimpanzees in Uganda's Kiblae Forest


STICKING POINT: as instruments of destruction go, tree limbs aren't usually held in high esteem. But put one in the hand of a chimp and it's a different matter altogether


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In mid-September of this year, Harvard professor Richard Wrangham stood before an audience at the university and told of a "startling" new development in weapons technology. But the talk Wrangham gave that day did not concern dirty bombs or weapons-grade anthrax. There was no mention of Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein. Instead, to the ominous opening chords of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, Wrangham faced his rapt audience and produced ... a stick.

As instruments of destruction go, tree limbs aren’t generally held in such esteem. But this wasn’t just any old tree limb. This was the tree limb with which Imoso, a male chimpanzee in Uganda’s Kibale Forest, had beaten the tar out of a female chimp named Outamba. In the space of a few minutes, this thuggish, enterprising ape may have revolutionized chimpanzee society. He certainly succeeded in turning the field of primatology on its head.

"This is the first time any animal other than humans has been seen to pick up clubs as weapons and use them against others of their own species," explains Wrangham, a 54-year-old professor of biological anthropology and world-renowned authority on chimpanzees. "This is the first repeated hitting. This is picking up a stick and wham-wham-wham-wham!"

Even more remarkable than the initial whamming, Wrangham adds, is the fact that matters did not end there. In July 2000, a little over a year after Imoso’s initial attack, a younger chimp named Johnny was seen using a stick to beat another ape senseless. To date, five separate incidents of weapons use have been recorded by Wrangham and his fellow researchers. In this sense, Imoso’s makeshift club was the A-bomb of sticks, the space-based laser beam of sticks.

Despite being a groundbreaking, even historic, development, the discovery of weapon use among chimps garnered little in the way of press coverage — which is perhaps understandable. At the time of Wrangham’s Harvard talk, the country was consumed by the anniversary of the September 11 attacks — not to mention the looming prospect of war with Iraq. The fact that a few chimps had taken to beating each other over the head with branches paled beside the terrible violence that seemed about to engulf the world.

But then, when it comes to the study of warfare, primatology has never commanded much respect. After all, it would seem that chimps, even those who take up weapons against each other, have little bearing on the current world crisis — with its complex web of religious, territorial, and economic determinants. As if to drive this point home, a number of Harvard professors were recently invited to contribute to a paper on terrorism for the National Academy of Sciences. The School of Public Health was represented in the report, as were the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the chemistry and economics departments. No one, though, thought of asking Dr. Wrangham what his research might lend to the study.

But Wrangham insists he’s not losing any sleep over the snub. "I don’t want to foist myself upon the debate," he says. "I think it’s important that [primatologists] are not given a false air of authority to talk about the specific political issues. I recognize that what I do is not like physics, where you’re suddenly going to be able to develop something — here’s your new lump of energy or your new medical device. It’s extremely unlikely that you can use these studies in any immediate practical sense." 

Yet Wrangham is brimming with theories about September 11 and its aftermath — many of them founded on what he has seen in the forests of Kibale. "It seems to me that the most important contribution I can make is to add to the sense of danger, the sense of realism," he says. "What the chimpanzee studies are telling us is how easily natural selection can favor these sorts of patterns of violence and how ridiculous it is to think that if we can just persuade humans to be nice to each other, then they will be. You have to take a very hard-headed approach to it."

Wrangham, who has been studying chimpanzees in the wild for over 30 years, certainly knows a thing or two about warfare — at least as it pertains to apes. In the early ’70s, he was among the first primatologists to note the tendency of chimpanzees to conduct so-called lethal raids against neighboring groups — a momentous discovery. In his 1996 book Demonic Males (Houghton Mifflin), a study of chimpanzee aggression, he describes one such attack:

The raiders rushed madly down the slope to their target. While Goliath screamed and the patrol hooted and displayed, he was held and beaten and kicked and lifted and dropped and bitten and jumped on.... His aggressors showed their excitement in a continuous barrage of hooting and drumming and charging and branch-waving and screaming.

While this scenario may sound nothing like modern human warfare, Wrangham insists that the motives for the assault were the same as those that drive conflicts among human societies: the acquisition of territory and resources, the enhancement of status, and the sheer will to conquer. "One of the amazing things is how there are these similarities between nation-states and chimpanzees in a group," he says. "We are the only two species of mammals who raid territories."

That humans and chimpanzees display similar patterns of behavior shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Recent studies have shown that the two species’ DNA make-up is about 99 percent identical. Indeed, there are many primatologists who believe that modern-day chimps are a fair representation of what our own ancestors must have looked like, and acted like, six million years ago; Wrangham has often described the animals as "time machines." "The underlying emotional systems that guide humans," he says, "are almost certainly very similar to those that guide chimpanzees."

The implications of this statement are troubling. If aggressive chimpanzee behavior corresponds to our own aggressive behavior six million years ago — and also to our behavior today — this implies that our violent tendencies have persisted throughout our evolutionary history. In other words, humans are hard-wired for violence. We’re stuck with it. "There is that implication, that’s right," Wrangham says. "We’re stuck with the propensity for violence, at least. That is the slightly alarming thing about this. It is daunting."

Even more daunting is the fact that chimpanzees are not only capable of the same kinds of group aggression that we are, they’re also capable of the same kind of wanton barbarity. In Wrangham’s office there is a picture of a corpse — a chimpanzee who has been set upon by aggressors. The animal is lying face down, frozen into a kind of crucifixion pose, as if he had died while being pinned down. Strips of skin have been peeled from his body. He bears the marks of countless puncture wounds and contusions. In another photograph, one of the victim’s blue-gray testicles lies nestled in the brush. The chimpanzee had been tortured to death.

Conventional wisdom holds that man’s propensity for sadistic violence is a sickness, a horrible psychic quirk. Wrangham’s theories, though, suggest that the inclination to commit extravagant atrocities is a part of our biological make-up — a mechanism of natural selection. In the light of Kibale’s marauding apes, the mob of teenage Milwaukee boys who recently chased down and viciously beat a man to death were not an aberration — they were simply engaging in the kind of territorial violence that young males have engaged in since the dawn of our species.

Understandably, such theories do not enjoy widespread popularity.

In 1987 — 15 years after Wrangham first reported on warfare among chimps — a group of scientists issued a document called the Seville Statement on Violence. In the paper, the scientists declared that war "is a product of culture," implying that, given a bit of cultural tweaking, warfare can be eradicated.

"This seems to me to be foolish optimism," Wrangham says. "Even in the scientific area, there’s a tendency to allow hope to overcome reason. So you have people writing that humans are basically good and cooperative, and where we have aggression and war it’s all an abnormal mistake that we can easily overcome. I see that they would get a readier reception than someone like me, and I understand that, because nobody wants bad news. But it’s putting our heads in the sand. Therefore, it’s dangerous."

Richard Wrangham doesn’t immediately strike you as the troglodytic type. Originally from Hertfordshire, England, Wrangham speaks in the clipped, confident tones of an Oxbridge don (he attended both Oxford and Cambridge). Balding and slightly rumpled, he is the picture of tweedy intellectualism. His tales of Africa, though, point to the ease with which men can slip back into their ape-like ways. "When you see these [chimpanzee] battles, you feel incredibly pumped," he says. "It goes right through your gut: these great balls of black fur racing through the bush. It’s scary, but there’s also the thrill of us-against-them, because, obviously, you want your side to win. It’s amazing how easily our Western-derived tendencies for sympathy get eroded in the face of these sorts of excitements."

His enthusiasm for this violence, though, may be less ape-like than it is guy-like.

According to Wrangham, blame for the high levels of violence in chimpanzee and human societies can be placed squarely at the feet of males (hence Demonic Males). In the course of our evolution, he says, aggressive males have enjoyed greater reproductive success; therefore, the process of natural selection has favored violent behavior. By extension, patriarchal societies exhibit similar tendencies. "America, as the dominant power in the world, is involved in more aggressive interactions than any other country," he says. "It’s the same with chimpanzees: the alpha male is always involved in putting down threats they see about them; they’re always breaking up alliances, challenging rivals."

Furthermore, Wrangham says, the kind of low-risk warfare characterized by a group of chimps launching a surprise attack on an individual — a common tactic among the animals — is analogous to the low-risk warfare favored by America’s modern military culture. A stick and a Stealth bomber may be light-years apart in terms of technology, but both shift the balance of power in favor of the individual — or nation — who wields them.

In chimpanzee societies, Wrangham continues, conflict usually breaks out as a result of power imbalances. Chimps, like the ones who ripped the testicles from the unfortunate ape in Wrangham’s photographs, generally will not attack in the absence of overwhelming force. The same principle applies to men. When the US and the USSR faced off during the Cold War, for instance, the balance of power between the two nations prevented armed conflict. Today, the only thing preventing all-out war against Iraq may be the fact that the US has so far failed to muster adequate coalition support.

The fact that America is amassing forces in the Gulf region, then, may be little more than an elaborate display — the equivalent of a chimp’s chest-thumping and dirt-flinging. Or it may signal something more dire. "The fascinating thing about the first Gulf War is this unresolved status challenge," Wrangham says. "With chimps and humans, conflict seems to be driven by more than simple strategic considerations. There is this added level of concern over status. The people who are making the decisions — Rumsfeld, Cheney — they are all part of this previous victory that nonetheless did not lead to a resolve in status between the leaders of the two countries. In chimpanzees, there is nothing that predicts aggression so well as when there are unresolved status challenges. It’s hard for me to say this is going to be peacefully resolved unless Saddam Hussein makes some major concessions."

Even more ape-like, Wrangham says, is our ongoing conflict with Al Qaeda. When the hijackers turned jets into missiles on September 11, they may have been initiating a terrible new form of warfare, but they were also reverting back to the kinds of lethal raids practiced by chimps and, subsequently, pre-industrial man. "In primitive society, this is what war consisted of," Wrangham says. "Setting fire to a hut with 50 people in it, or attacking the World Trade Center." In an ironic twist, the mighty American military machine — with all its sophistication and firepower — has also reverted back to this primitive form of warfare. The current emphasis on Special Operations missions — with their covert actions and quick-hit raids — is a weirdly atavistic military strategy, not so far removed from the stealthy chimp patrols in Uganda.

"This is very alarming," Wrangham says. "Traditional warfare — mutual raiding — is very difficult to stop. It is much more punishing on everybody. There is just much more suffering. The ability to protect against raids is something that predicts relative peacefulness. People have to recognize that the old systems of protection are not going to be adequate. This is the message from Al Qaeda. The message is that now more than ever, we need a moral agreement in the world, because military agreements and military tactics are going to be very ineffective against mutual raiding."

He adds: "I accept the overall message that reality is tough."

Then, perhaps aware that his visitor is about to leap from the nearest window, Wrangham provides a little glimmer of hope: "Overall, the pattern of statehood and nation growth has led to reduced levels of conflict," he says, though without much conviction. Wrangham also points out that his Demonic Males presents "a nice balance: here’s the bad news, here’s the good news." In fairness, after 250 pages of testosterone-drenched strife, the book does end by reminding us that human beings are also closely related to bonobos — petite, chimp-like creatures who live in peaceful, matriarchal societies, and who would much rather engage in lengthy and elaborate sexual encounters with each other than fight. Even the book’s villains, male chimps, are partly redeemed in the closing pages. 

In May 1993, Wrangham reveals in his book’s final chapter, he looked on with fascination and delight as Kakama, a two-year-old chimp, dragged a little lump of wood behind him — "like Christopher Robin with Winnie-the-Pooh. Bump bump bump." For the entire day, Kakama went to great pains to hang on to his piece of wood, and at one point tenderly placed it in a little nest he had built. "I had just watched a young male chimpanzee invent and then play with a doll," Wrangham writes. "A doll!" Today, Kakama’s little log-doll resides in a glass case at the Peabody Museum, just downstairs from Wrangham’s office. Recently, the artifact was joined by a few others: a collection of ordinary, harmless-looking sticks.

Chris Wright can be reached at cwright at phx.com

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