Book Review: Chimpanzee Politics

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In the year I was born the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal delivered a highly popular and influential book about the chimpanzees of Arnhem Zoo, the Netherland facility housing the largest captive population of the apes in the world. At first such a book might not have seemed so exciting, the well-known studies of Jane Goodall or Diane Fossey among apes in Africa making a group of chimpanzees in a zoo seem bland by comparison, but de Waal took advantage of the opportunities for detailed observation the captive setting provided and painted a vivid picture of the complex social life of chimpanzees in Chimpanzee Politics. Twenty-five years after its first publication, the book has recently been updated with new information about the chimpanzees of Arnhem and a selection of color photographs, the supplemental materials adding to what was already an excellent book.

The true strength of Chimpanzee Politics lies in de Waal's ability to guide the reader step-by-step through the complex social interactions of the chimpanzees, the story of the various dominance shifts and reconciliations being fairly easy to follow. Even when some of the interactions become a little confusing, the book includes a smattering of diagrams that help to show how the groups feelings toward a certain member oscillated back and forth over time, for example. These are especially helpful as de Waal shows that while physical strength or the ability to beat another chimpanzee in a one-to-one confrontation is important, coalitions and support from other members of the group can make or break dominance hierarchies in ways that we might not expect. Indeed, the males Luit, Nikki, and Yeroen are the main "characters" of this tale, each having their time at the top (but only through cooperation and coalitions). Ultimately, as reported by de Waal in the paper "The Brutal Elimination of a Rival Among Captive Male Chimpanzees" published in 1986, Luit was fatally injured by Nikki and Yeroen, a fact that is included in the epilouge as de Waal admits he did not want to initially end his book on a dark note.

The power shifts between the three males don't make sense without an understanding of the females in the group, however, and de Waal does spend some time describing the behaviors and social habits of the females. A little more explanation and detail in this area would have strengthened the book, especially since female chimpanzees in the wild disperse from their home populations and are not constantly in close contact with each other, but de Waal does spend some time talking about the rough time the male chimpanzees received when introduced to the group when it was dominated by a female named Mama. Eventually the males achieved dominance, but even so they still relied on the support of females during the periods when one male was on his way to displacing the dominant male as the alpha, so females are not merely relegated to the objects of the males sexual desires and nothing else. In fact, the younger sexually-mature females were sometimes so amorous that they "wore out" the adult males, the interactions between the sexes being just as compelling as the chapters featuring power struggles.

Given the close resemblances, both physical and social, between chimpanzees and our own species it is easy to draw comparisons between the two, but de Waal remains careful not to extend his observations of chimpanzees too far. Even when his writings might land on the anthropomorphic side of the fence, de Waal usually admits that he is doing so up front. Indeed, de Waal's unapologetic attitude for attributing names and personalities to each animal and up-front honesty in making the occasional comparison to human behavior makes Chimpanzee Politics a refreshing read, de Waal overcoming preconceptions that captive chimpanzees are not worth the time spent studying them. While it was right on-time to signal a changing view of primatology when it was first published, Chimpanzee Politics is just as fresh and thought-provoking in 2008 as it was in 1983.

[Thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press for providing a review copy of Chimpanzee Politics.]

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I have always enjoyed reading the work of Frans de Waal, a primatologist who focuses on the social structure and psychology of apes, particularly the two chimp species, and monkeys. His previous books, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, The Ape and the Sushi…
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It's my favorite anthro book, actually. De Waal is a very good author and I learned a LOT about chimps reading this book, and his other ones back in college. You're right, I should pick it back up and refresh my memory. I love reading about chimp behavior.

My neuroethology lab read this as our journal club a few years back. I remember it being an interesting book, but much of it felt like fluff. In the end my lab agreed that while the book was good it could have been half as long and still retained all its positive qualities.

By Chad Estep (not verified) on 08 Jan 2008 #permalink

I'll definately go out and get this book. Primate behavior is particularly interesting considering it's implications to us and our own political tendencies (and those of our common ancestor).

What subspecies of chimps are these? Just out of curiosity.

The female dominance in this captive group is interesting, because they're obviously common chimps, but the idea that the females have so much control over the group is very reminiscent of bonobos.