Of chimps and men

Can chimps behave strategically? What do you think? I have a tentative answer – which is that they do, but only in a limited sense.

An answer, of course, depends firstly on your definition of strategy. One interpretation would require the capacity to imagine what our future self wants, and then to work towards that future. I have some doubts about the ability of homo sapiens to do that with any great accuracy, even if that’s what their conscious mind might suggest they are doing. As for whether chimps can do it, I really doubt that.

In an important, if limited, sense, though, chimps and humans do instinctively think in strategic terms. Their proximate goal is status (their ultimate, unconscious goal is to leave large numbers of genetic copies behind – and status, especially in polygamous societies, is a good way of getting ahead at that), and so they bend their behaviour towards achieving that. They may not have great choice about the goal (certainly not as much as humans, who can express status in different ways), but they have a choice about how to achieve it.

That is a similar position to Frans de Waal, who suspects that chimps are strategists, but cannot be sure. In his famous book, Chimpanzee Politics, de Waal paints a picture of chimp behaviour that is distinctly human, indeed Machiavellian in the amount of scheming that goes on in a troop he observed for six years in Arnhem zoo.

As with de Waal, I think that at this level of abstraction, chimp and human behaviour can be described as strategic. Even if it is an instinctive and largely unconscious drive that underpins our alliances and enmities – shaping our appraisal of all the intra and intergroup relationships we encounter.

Where humans differ is in having a richer array of ways to conceptualise esteem or status, and work towards establishing it. Even a physically puny academic can command status in human societies. And human also have the capacity for imagination – projecting a rich variety of futures, and making complex plans to achieve it, including by drawing creatively on memories. It’s not at all clear that the chimps sit about imagining possible futures. Then there is the capacity for complex language – allowing great possibilities for communicating about strategy – including, of course, deceiving one’s interlocutor.

Chimps have a more limited repertoire, certainly – but some capacity for communication, and memory (particularly of who sits where in a hierarchy) underpins their social behaviour. The chimps quest for social standing, and the attendant rewards of sex have been honed in a similar evolutionary context to ours. And there are similarites, for example, in chimp raiding habits and the sort of primitive warfare described by Lawrence Keeley.

What of the human capacity for abstraction? Certainly, it suggests a different level of strategic thinking. Chimps don’t deliberate on whether to invade Russia without having first finished off Britain. They don’t weigh the pros and cons of Ibiza over Iceland as next year’s holiday destination. Or of a career as a don versus one as a firefighter. We are different – capable of great imaginative flexibility in both means and ends. But I am of the minimal-free-will school – that is, I see our conscious mind often as a rationaliser for decisions reached elsewhere, beyond our conscious ken. Timothy Wilson and David Eagleman have the long story.  So the conscious bit of strategizing, in contrast to rational actor models, may not be where the action really is. And down in the subconscious basement, we, like our simian friends, are on the lookout for status, and we instinctively use reciprocal altruism as well as brute strength and cunning to achieve it. If there is choice in strategy, then for humans and chimps alike, that need not be conscious choice.

Chimp strategy then, requires some human-like abilities. They may not have the sophisticated cognitive magic trick of a self, situated in time, constructing memories of the past and images of the future.  And they might not have the rich possibilities for deception, scheming, or even collaboration opened by language. These higher order processes clearly confer some evolutionary advantages.

They might not, however, be necessary for strategic behaviour of a more limited sense. It’s that sort of strategic thinking we have in common with the chimps. The question is what extra value we get from our abstract, sentient thinking about the future. A richer array of behaviours for sure, in pursuit of a richer variety of goals. But as Dan Gilbert has argued, we’re pretty poor at going after what’s best for us, or even knowing what that is.


One thought on “Of chimps and men

  1. Lars says:

    It seems like no one has been able to come up with a definite explanation as to why chimpanzees attack other troupes. However, it could be tempting to say that dominant males in the attacking groups use these raids to direct the lower ranking males’ aggression towards outsiders. As an extra bonus, he would enhance his reputation with every ‘kill’.
    If so, that would imply strategic thinking among chimpanzees.

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