Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives
This article appeared in Volume 5(2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
The Egalitarians: Human and Chimpanzee: An Anthropological View of Social Organization. By Margaret Power. Cambridge University Press 1991 290+ xxviii pp ISBN 0521-400163
In the Second Discourse (On the Origin of Inequality Among Men) Rousseau argues that human beings, unencumbered by perfectibilty, would be essentially free of jealousy and competition. Such emotions, he suggests, focus upon artificial differences, e g, beauty, wealth and class. Arbitrarily defined features both add value and confer unnatural advantage. Rousseau's formulations are congenial to thinkers like Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Derrida and Bourdieu, to whom the arbitrariness of symbols is a central concept. A recent reanalysis of much of the research on chimpanzee behaviour and the literature on human foragers strongly recalls Rousseau's imagined primeval landscape in the mind of the reader. Indeed the author draws specific comparison to the state of nature as Rousseau describes it in The Social Contract (though not the Discourse). The resulting text offers a substantial challenge to those inclined to a Hobbesian view of human (and other primate) nature, though I shall argue that the author might have done well to pay more heed to Rousseau's incipient recognition of the significance of arbitrary signs in human interaction.
The Egalitarians: Human and Chimpanzee is a well-written book, which attempts to rescue the reputation of chimpanzees and human foragers from the negative impressions left by some recent scholarship. Briefly, its argument, based upon published sources, is that chimps, undisturbed by selective provisioning at the hands of scientists, are well adjusted, egalitarian, non-aggressive creatures, as are human foragers unaffected by property-based societies.
The cornerstone of Power's argument is that chimps observed in the wild, like undisturbed human foragers, exist under a regime of indirect competition, in which individuals or groups, rather than competing for the same resources, are free to pursue different examples of the same type of resource throughout a broad territory. This, she argues, leads to much less stress and frustration and thus less aggression, in the relationship between such competitors. "Indirect competition" is reminiscent of the state of affairs which Rousseau imagined would exist between humans before the advent of socially generated desires. He postulates a paradoxical condition in which all would be at "war", yet everywhere there would be peace. This would be possible because each specimen of a desired good would be much the same as another, and human mobility would be so great as to allow one to move to the next tree if the apple (or the sexual partner) lying beneath one were already spoken for.
Power has much to say about chimp mobility in the absence of provisioning. She says wild chimpanzee groups are extremely fluid, with both males and females moving from group to group, at appropriate points in the life cycle. To exploit some resources, chimpanzees move in small groups, or as individuals. Some areas are frequented only by members of such small groups. Sometimes larger groups temporarily congregate, in what Power calls a "carnival". She suggests that while such encounters are not without tension, positive interactions, like grooming, copulation and juvenile play help to dispel it and that when such groups break up there is usually considerable reshuffling of membership. Such transfers allow individuals to walk away from potential aggression and ensure a high level of stress-reducing recognition between members of different groups. Power compares this pattern of mobility to the annual cycles of foragers, who come together and disperse over large territories in accordance with the seasonal availability of resources, and who also allow much intergroup transfer.
Power notes that chimps in feeding station groups tend to limit their own mobility, with males staying in the same group for life and the transfer of females between groups being strictly limited. Some neighbouring groups to those frequenting the feeding stations have apparently been totally eliminated.
Other features of unprovisioned chimp life which Power finds worthy of note include relatively stress free infancy and childhood, with intense, individual maternal care and a generalized social paternity, which provides protection and important communication. Powers compares the optimal childhood of unprovisioned chimps to that reported for young human foragers, especially the Mbuti Pygmies, as described by Colin Turnbull.
Compared to young chimpanzees in unprovisioned groups, Power argues, infants and juveniles in provisioned groups cling to their mothers for long periods. They fight with other animals, and are sometimes attacked and even killed by other chimpanzees, especially adult males, who seem to lash out at them when tense over aggressive encounters with other males, though they may protect them at other times.
Power says that the literature on unprovisioned chimps provides little evidence of dominance hierarchies among males, though some "charismatic" individuals of both sexes can command the respect of other animals. Females apparently engage in free copulation with young and older males alike, and there is little attempt to coerce females into accepting or rejecting any partner. Though Power acknowledges that human foragers, like all other human groups, possess the institution of marriage, she does cite a general sexual equality reported in much of the literature and the relative ease with which people may leave marriages among highly mobile groups with shifting membership.
Provisioned chimps, by contrast, exhibit a high degree of dominance, male competition and aggression, and there is evidence of coercion and jealousy with regard to mating.
Power points out that a literature has arisen, since provisioning was begun at African research stations in the mid-60s, which presents provisioned chimps as the norm of chimp behaviour, and, accordingly, implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) suggests that humans are evolutionarily inclined toward hierarchy, aggression, and male dominance, thus naturalizing human institutions which many had hoped to change through social reform. In challenging this literature and its conclusions, Power's work would seem to ease the task of those who argue that human ranking, especially the demarcation of gender, is largely a cultural artifact, the natural basis of which is much less stable than was once imagined. Had Power stopped here, the argument would be thoroughly admirable, and she would deserve much commendation for careful scholarship and the correction of misimpressions. It is her comparisons of chimps to humans that this reader, at least, thinks Power runs into trouble.
Power interprets the dystonic results of provisioning largely in terms of the animals' natural responses to frustration. The provisioning at the Gombe and Mahale research stations has been carried out in a way which would seem to maximize such frustration. Limited quantities of bananas (at Gombe) or sugarcane (at Mahale) are doled out by humans at irregular intervals, with further supplies accessible to the animals' senses, but physically unavailable. Certainly, Power's suggestion that the stress and tension caused by this situation is sufficient to cause heightened competition, aggression and such apparently maladaptive behaviour as the killing of males' own offspring is highly plausible. It is also plausible that, as she suggests, "charismatic" leaders become aggressive, truly dominant ones at times of crisis when mutual dependence would be maladaptive. What is less convincing is the implicit parallel drawn between the chimp situation and the human condition.
In her treatment of human foragers, Power sometimes veers too close to zoomorphism. This is particularly worrying because the humans in question, inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa, have been subject to such zoomorphism before, to their great detriment. Although Power offers brief disclaimers to the effect that all human groups possess marriage, religion and other institutions unknown to chimps, the overall effect of the comparison is to give the impression that human foragers, in particular the !Kung and the Mbuti Pygmies, live closer to nature than do other humans. However unintended, this impression is rendered even stronger by the common African home of chimpanzees, !Kung and Mbuti, and the oldest fossil hominids. It would be too easy to draw the conclusion that Africans, human and non-human alike, are happiest when removed from the temptation of civilization. Richard Lee, an early and persistent supporter of the benefits of a foraging way of life, has expressed displeasure at just such a representation in the film The Gods Must be Crazy (1985).
Neither the social behaviour of foragers nor that of any other humans is an automatic response to their degree of frustration. Humans do not conduct peace or war without reference to symbols. This is definitely so with human foragers, who frequently act well toward others out of fear of supernatural retribution.
This is a book written from the noblest of motives, by an author who argues for many progressive positions. Despite my caveats about the human-chimp comparison, Power has issued a challenge to future observers of both human and animal behaviour to help us learn more about the causes and effects of cooperative, pro-social behaviour. Let us hope they will take it up.
Lee, Richard B. (1985). The Gods Must be Crazy, but the producers know exactly what they're doing. Southern Afric Report, June 1985, pp 19-20.
Harriet Lyons is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Women's Studies at the University of Waterloo. She has published on several topics concerned with the anthropology of Africa, and, with Andrew P. Lyons, has conducted research on mass communications in Benin City, Nigeria. Currently, they are writing a book on the interplay between racial attitudes and anthropologists' approaches to the sexuality of "others".