Lessons from chimpanzees: why politics are a good thing

It has become fashionable to use the term “political” as an insult. Calling a coworker “political” implies that the person is somehow dishonest, and there is a growing distaste for professional politicians as evidenced by backlash movements in numerous democratic countries.

Yet at the end of his seminal book Chimpanzee Politics (first published in 1982), Frans de Waal outlines why we should celebrate politics: it provides the logical coherence and democratic structure to our shared community (using the term “community” here to mean any social grouping, however large). He even postulates that the reason that the power politics described by Machiavelli were considered shocking is not because they are unusual, but because his acknowledgement of the constructive role they can play transgressed a collective taboo.

Adult and young chimp hugging

Photo courtesy of The Buffa Family under Creative Commons license CC-AT.

There are many other other useful insights in Chimpanzee Politics, including the  breakdown of primate social groups into two parts:

  1. One layer of society is organized hierarchically. Actors in this part of the group participate in the society’s rituals related to dominance. This process is generally marked by periods of stability, punctuated by periods of upheaval when the hierarchy is challenged and possibly reorganized. The hierarchical players often benefit from privileges, which are tolerated by the rest of the society because of the concept of reciprocity: the hierarchical leaders are expected in some way to pay back those privileges to the larger group. In some cases this is through protective services, in other cases through generosity.
  2. The apparent hierarchy is often not where the real power lies. There are many shadow actors with significant influence. Even in the world of chimpanzees, the acknowledged hierarchical leader may be completely dependent on the support of one or more influencers. The second level of society is the pool of potential influencers, and that is the numerical majority of the society.

Traditional approaches to human leadership focused on the first layer. In recent decades, more and more work has looked at the second layer. Stakeholder theory is one example, and another is the concept of “followship”, an acknowledgement that leaders are only as good as their capacity to motivate people to follow them.

Looking at the concept of power and politics like this also sheds interesting new insights on several common phenomena:

  • The difficulty eradicating gangs and mafias is less puzzling if we understand that they are embedded in a cultural context that tolerates their activities in exchange for social stability and/or protective services. Eliminating gangs and mafias therefore requires a program of cultural change, not just punitive action against selected individuals.
  • The reasons for the recent proliferation of grassroots and anti-system movements become clearer as well. Growing inequality within societies coupled with more transparency have undermined confidence that the leaders are holding up their end of the deal with regard to reciprocity. An unspoken social contract has been broken, and the result is the revolt of the influencers.

Frans de Waal’s book broke another taboo: by demonstrating the continuity in social organization between our closest animal relatives and humans, he forced us to confront the fact that our differences from animals are more a question of degree than of nature. Some people may still find that shocking. I find it comforting, but also challenging, because it also forces us to reconsider our believes and behavior towards the cohabitants of our planet.


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