An interview with primatologist Frans de Waal was recently brought to my attention. De Waal, a prolific author who wrote extensively about his research on chimpanzees, is famous for having promulgated the concept of “alpha male.” In his book Chimpanzee Politics, he talked about this concept, and then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, recommended the book to new congressmen and women. But according to De Waal, the concept was miscomprehended and came to mean, as he explained in a TED lecture, that an alpha male “is basically a bully.”
Actually, says De Waal, alpha males are not necessarily the most aggressive or the strongest. For the most part, they rise to the top by forming coalitions with other males, and continue to cultivate their relationships with them once they reach the top position. The coalition helps them maintain their status and deter potential challengers.
However, a coalition of males is not enough to maintain the top post. Despite their physical inferiority, the females have a decisive role in the troop. To win their support, the alpha male pampers the females with food and other treats, and tickles their infants.
“However, a coalition of males is not enough to maintain the top post. Despite their physical inferiority, the females have a decisive role in the troop. To win their support, the alpha male pampers the females with food and other treats, and tickles their infants.”
Interestingly, both the alpha male and alpha female play the role of peacekeepers—the male among the males, and the female among the females. When the alpha male comes to make peace between belligerent monkeys, he transcends consideration of coalition and acts as an objective peacemaker. The troop members recognize this and respect him for that.
Even more interesting, an alpha male will often assist an ailing or a sick member of the troop for no apparent reason. Even if he is not a member of his coalition and there seems to be no personal benefit in helping a weaker or a sick monkey, male or female, the alpha male will often share food, offer comfort, and assist in many other ways.
As a rule, the kinder the alpha male, the longer his reign. And when it is time to be replaced, he will not be mistreated. On the contrary, the troop will continue to respect him and assist him in his old age, a tribute to his kindness in his days at the throne.
If a bully becomes the alpha male, as it sometimes happens, he will rule just as long as his physical strength endures. When challenged, not only will the troop not support him, it will support his challenger. The end of a bullying alpha male will invariably be bitter and painful.
I am describing all this to show how similar we are. That is, if our society were as just and ethical as that of the chimpanzees, it would probably look something like this.
In the end, the desires of humans and the desires of primates are the same desires, the same thoughts and calculations. The difference lies in the intensity and sophistication, but the desires are all and all the same. Envy, passion, and power hunger all exist in humans as they exist in primates, though in the latter, they are less developed and not as sophisticated.
“As a rule, the kinder the alpha male, the longer his reign. And when it is time to be replaced, he will not be mistreated. On the contrary, the troop will continue to respect him and assist him in his old age, a tribute to his kindness in his days at the throne.”
If we examine ourselves honestly, we will see that on the social level, we have not evolved more than they have. While we developed technology, they developed positive social characteristics that we have not. As a result, we have a technologically advanced society that uses technology against its own members.
There is a reason why this happens, a fundamental difference that makes it impossible for our society to become like that of the primates. The difference is that what they do instinctively, we must do consciously, or we will not be able to do it at all, as we can evidently see.
If we were meant to remain on the level of primates, there would be no point in becoming humans. We have been denied the instinct to build a positive and supportive society so that we would develop it of our own accord. In doing so, we would grasp the merits of such a society compared to its opposite, which is our current state. This, in turn, would make our understanding of human nature, and of nature as a whole, far deeper than any other created being can grasp.
Some may think that trying to care for one another is naive or unrealistic, but they do not understand that by doing so, we are building within us the structure that exists outside of us. We study nature by simulating its modus operandi, and since nature works in a manner of reciprocity and care, as the chimpanzee society demonstrates, the only way that we will understand nature is by building a similar society of our own accord and through our own efforts.
Nature, in a sense, has made us blind so we would develop our vision by ourselves. We, for our blindness and selfishness, think that the whole world is as blind and selfish as we are. But if we strive to act the way animals act naturally, we will discover nature’s true, caring disposition.