Re: Chimpanzee Politics

The first in a series of books by Franz de Waal about chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans, Chimpanzee Politics is a very readable account of the power struggles in a small troup of chimpanzees at the Arnhelm Ape Colony in the Netherlands. While de Waal is sometimes controversial for how quick he is to draw parallels between humans and other primates, it’s hard to argue that the events described in this book are anything but political.

As the book shows, no member of a chimpanzee troup can hold their position on their own. Everyone forms coalitions and alliances. For example, the non-dominant chimpanzees (mostly the females) tend to back their friends in conflicts. For them, it’s all personal.

What’s more interesting is that dominant chimpanzees (mostly high-ranking males) take on the job of backing the losers in conflicts. For them, it’s all political. By doing so, they keep a relative peace by breaking up fights and gain the support of the weaker chimpanzees.

The alpha male needs allies more than any other. Over the course of the book, you read a fascinating account of how these alliances can shift. First, Luit overthrows the elder Yeroen by harassing the females until they withdraw their support from Yeroen and gather around Luit. Yeroen counters by allying with another young adult, Nikkie, to isolate Luit. Though Nikkie really isn’t old enough or strong enough, with Yeroen’s help, he becomes the alpha. Together they form a rough-hewn picture of the elder statesman advising the young prince how to check the local strongman.

Of course, things don’t stay that way. In this revised edition, there is a follow-up in the back about what happened to the various chimpanzees since the events of the book. The brutality of it is worthy of any warlord.