Chimp Lessons, part 2

Chimps certainly communicate a lot, mostly with signs though they can be taught to use a few symbols. They certainly don’t have the human facility for complex symbol use including abstract nouns, and past tense and future tense verbs – not to mention conditional perfect or future subjunctive or modal verbs. But remember what Talleyrand, the 18th century French clergyman and diplomat, told us about language. Talleyrand said:
“God gave humans language so they could conceal their thoughts from one another.”
In fact, we got so good at hiding our thoughts and intentions from one another that it became useful to have indicators of our feelings that are hard to fake. We might find ourselves smiling, giggling, or crying when we don't want to. These are signals of our feelings that are hard to fake but not terribly hard.

The hardest feeling-signal to fake is the blush. Neither chimps nor bonobos – nor, as far as we have yet to discover, any nonhuman species – blush. And blushing is very hard to fake. Actors who can easily cry tears upon command find blushing much harder, and usually rely on make-up if a scene calls for a blush.

Blushing remains an evolutionary mystery, but one theory is that with all that dissembling and disguising of our thinking made possible by complex symbolic language, it was actually helpful to have some signals that can't be controlled – a way to let others know, even if we might not want to, that our embarrassment or strong feeling is genuine. So Mark Twain’s quip – that “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to” – may have been true in ways he didn't imagine.

Our fancy words, of course, disguise ourselves not only from others, but from ourselves. We fabricate accounts of what we’re doing and what we intend, and then we believe our fabrication. It’s not that chimps can’t intentionally deceive each other and humans -- but the study of other hominins does give us some glimpse into part of what may be going on with humans behind our more elaborate linguistic constructs and conceits. When Frans de Waal began his chimpanzee studies as a young graduate student it was the flower-power era of the 1970s. What he saw in these other hominins, he began to see in humans. He writes:
“My generation was anarchistic and fiercely democratic, didn’t trust the authorities that ran the university, viewed sexual jealousy as antiquated, and felt that any kind of ambition was suspect. The chimpanzee colony that I watched day in and day out, on the other hand, showed all those ‘reactionary’ tendencies in spades: power, ambition, and jealousy. Sitting there with my shoulder-length hair, nourished by saccharine songs such as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ and ‘Good Vibrations,’ I went through a truly eye-opening period. Right away, as a human being, I was struck by the similarities between us and our closest relative....I had to come to grips with behavior that my generation roundly denounced but that was common in [these other] apes....I began to better understand my own kind. I started to notice rampant jockeying for position, coalition formation, currying of favors, and political opportunism – in my own environment. And I don’t mean just among the older generation. The student movement had its own alpha males, power struggles, groupies, and jealousies. In fact, the more promiscuous we became, the more sexual jealousy reared its ugly head. My ape study gave me the right distance to analyze these patterns, which were plain as day if you looked for them. Student leaders ridiculed and isolated potential challengers and stole everybody’s girlfriend while at the same time preaching the wonders of egalitarianism and tolerance. There was an enormous mismatch between what my generation wanted to be, as expressed in our passionate political oratory, and how we actually behaved.” (Mama's Last Hug, 26-7)
Writing now almost 5 decades of study later, de Waal finds:
“Human hierarchies can be quite apparent, but we don’t always recognize them as such, and academics often act as if they don’t exist. I have sat through entire conferences on adolescent human behavior without ever hearing the words power and sex, even though to me they are what teen life is all about. When I bring it up, usually everyone nods and thinks it’s marvelously refreshing how a primatologist looks at the world, then continue on their merry way focusing on self-esteem, body image, emotion regulation, risk-taking, and so on....Yet among teens, there is nothing more obvious than the exploration of sex, the testing of power, and the seeking of structure.” (31)
Example after example, study after study, has chipped away at notions of human exceptionalism in the emotional and social realm.

Consider, to select almost randomly, one example: triadic awareness -- i.e., awareness of not only your relationship with B and your relationship with C, but also the relationship of B with C.
“Many animals obviously know whom they dominate, or whom their own family and friends are, but chimps go one step further by realizing who around them dominates whom and who is friends with whom. Individual A is aware not only of his own relationships with B and C but also of the B-C relationship. Her knowledge covers the entire triad. Triadic awareness may even extend outside the group, as shown by Mama’s reaction to the zoo director. She had little direct contact with him, yet she must have picked up on how jumpy and deferential the caretakers acted whenever he stopped by. [Other] apes observe and learn, just as [humans] do when we understand who is married to whom or to which family a child belongs....Triadic awareness is not limited to ape – it has also been found in monkeys and ravens.” (30)
We learn a lot about B by watching how B is with C – and we are far from the only species who does that.
“Scientists at the University of Kyoto tested how capuchin monkeys reacted to a scene in which a person pretended to have trouble opening a plastic container and asked a human experimenter for help. The experimenter kindly gave the help. In the next scene, the person asked a different experimenter for help – one who turned away and ignored the request. Would the monkeys like the good guy or the selfish jerk? Mind you, this was about how the experimenter treated not the monkeys but another person. After watching the scenes enacted in front of them, the monkeys refused to have anything to do with the despicable experimenter, turned off by her poor level of cooperation.” (164)
They’re watching – just as Mama was watching in order to pick up on the authority that the zoo director had. And the level of political intrigue in a chimp colony comes pretty close to our own. De Waal describes the case of Nikkie.
“After Nikkie became the new alpha male in the chimpanzee colony of Burgers Zoo, he regularly practiced strategic retaliation. His dominance was not yet fully acknowledged, and subordinates would often pressure him, banding together and chasing him around, leaving him panting and licking his wounds. But Nikkie did not give up, and a few hours later he’d regain his composure. The rest of the day he’d go around the large island to single out members of the resistance, visiting them one by one while they were sitting alone minding their own business. He’d intimidate them or give them a beating, which likely made them think twice before opposing him again.”
You may have noticed that presidents seem to age faster – that Obama, for instance, looked a lot more than 8 years older at the end of his presidency than he had at the beginning of it. In chimps, too, “alpha males live under constant pressure and can get stressed out.” An alpha male at the Yerkes Field station had a rival who never let up and provoked him every day. A photo of the chimp seems to show the constant worry reflected in his eyes.

Our own species is remarkably plastic. And those linguistic constructs that conceal our thoughts also allow humans to build civilization far beyond what other apes can do (which, itself, is a good news, bad news story). The chimp lessons – toward which I have but gestured – teach us what we may have hidden from ourselves. Power and sex dynamics continue to be huge drivers of our behavior, howsoever our conceptualizing may disguise and dress them up.

The moral here, I take it, is not that since the drives for power and sex are only natural, we should drop our inhibitions and subterfuge and more baldly and aggressively assert these drives. Rather, my teaching today, as it often is, is: pay attention. Notice. It’s when we don’t notice the operations of power and sex drives that they most control our lives. By paying attention to the arising of these drives – in ourselves and in others – and only by doing so – we gain some freedom to decide for ourselves what to do about them.

Let us not deny what we are. Let us not or repress, or suppress – except maybe temporarily as a particular situation may require. Over the long haul, it’s not repression that we seek. Rather, we seek grounding in a clear awareness of what we are, as reading up on the behavior of our fellow hominins helps provide. We may then channel what we are into what we yet may be. May that be so.


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