The Dynamics of Primate Societies

The genes that influence human social behavior are inscribed somewhere in the genome but have not yet been recognized. Until they are, the best available guide to them has emerged from the new understanding of how chimpanzee and bonobo societies work. The two ape societies are quite different in character. That of chimps is male dominated and aggressive, whereas bonobos are female dominated and highly conciliatory. Presumably the elements of both kinds of behavior must have existed in the joint human chimp ancestor from which chimps and bonobos are descended. The social behaviors of the two apes therefore provide invaluable insights into the set of social behaviors that humans too may have inherited from the common primate ancestor.

Chimp society evolved, as might be expected, for the purpose of maximizing the reproductive success of its members. The society's structure seems to be carefully attuned to chimps' general environment, just as the very different social structure of bonobos is appropriate to their environment. Human societies too have a range of different structures, each of which can be seen as a solution to a particular environmental problem. The egalitarian structure of hunter-gatherer societies is well suited to managing the risk of uneven hunting success. The hierarchical structure of settled societies may be a more efficient way of administering surpluses and trade.

The templates for chimp and human social behavior are very similar in a central feature, that of territorial defense and the willingness to solve the problem of a hostile neighboring society by seeking its extermination. But they differ in other critical aspects. Humans have evolved a different relationship between the sexes, based on family units instead of separate male and female hierarchies. These family units require a considerably higher level of trust among males, enabling them to band together for social purposes like warfare with a reasonable degree of confidence that others will not steal their wives. Second, all human societies support institutions not found in the chimp repertoire. These include property rights, a propensity for ceremony, ritual and religion, and elaborate systems of trade and exchange, based on a universal expectation of reciprocity. Chimpanzee groups, like primitive human societies, are held together by bonds of kin relationships, the evolutionary basis of which is well understood. But kin-bonded societies cannot grow beyond a certain size. Humans, with their special gift of language, have developed ways to knit together large groups of unrelated individuals. One of these binding forces is religion, which may have emerged almost as early as language. Because of the richness of human culture, it is hard to define the genetic underpinnings of human social behavior. It is much easier to see a set of social behaviors, presumably genetically defined, among our primate cousins. Chimpanzees have been studied in the wild for some 45 years by two pioneers, Jane Goodall at Gombe and Toshisada Nishida at Mahale, both in Tanzania, and by their successors at these and several other sites in Africa. Only in recent years, as the fruit of much arduous research, has the big picture come together. Biologists can now explain many deep features of chimp society and how its components work. The dynamics of chimp society bear directly on the better-concealed game plan of human societies. Though Goodall at first believed the chimpanzees at Gombe lived in one big happy group, it later became clear, through the stimulus of Nishida's research, that the opposite is the case. Chimps are divided into communities of up to 120 members, which occupy and aggressively defend specific territories. A chimp community never assembles as a whole. Chimps move around in bands of 20 or so, with shifting membership, in what chimp watchers call a fission-fusion society. The females often feed alone with their offspring or in small nursery parties. A striking parallel with human societies is that these communities are patrilocal, meaning the males stay in their home territory and females move to find mates in neighboring territories. Female chimps generally leave their home communities at the age of puberty and join other communities, whose males tend to find them more attractive than their own.

Most hunter-gatherer societies are patrilocal, in the sense that the wife goes to live with the husband's family. The biological reason is to avoid inbreeding, a problem faced by all social animals. But the almost universal solution in the primate world is matrilocality: the females stay put and the males disperse at puberty. Patrilocality is the exception to the rule, and has probably evolved in only four other primate species besides

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