by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright August 2002
In 1999, three adult chimpanzees broke out of their cage at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. It made the news because the chimps jumped two zookeepers and mauled them severely. One lost fingers in the affair, and the rescuing zookeepers contained the problem with a shotgun. This got me to thinking about man and chimpanzee, genetic cousins, and the differences between leadership styles in these two species.
Baby chimps are quite lovable and tolerant of other chimps and of humanity. This is why they show up on TV and at birthday parties. But even those baby chimps who receive the kindest treatment as youngsters grow up to be adults who are violent in dealing with other chimps and violent and treacherous in their dealings with humanity. It appears that tolerance is hardwired into baby chimp thinking and violent dominance fighting is hardwired into adult chimp thinking.
This kind of wiring transition makes sense: A child can't stand up to an adult and would get severely damaged in any serious attempt to do so, but an adult who doesn't stand up for his or her rights is going to be denied precious resources. Adults are always going to be cranky and short-fused compared to their childhood natures.
But there are other consequences to this choice of having a pecking order based on winning dominance disputes. The world changes from day to day; dominant animals get sick and die, or just old and weak. Those adults that lose a dominance contest one day may find they can win on a subsequent day, so it pays to keep checking if the dominant can still dominate. The result of this is that the adult members of the group fill their day with dominance contests, and the larger the group, the more time the group members must spend on dominance contesting. If dominance checking is basically a one-on-one check between each member of the group, then the difference between an OK size and a too big size will come up dramatically. This happens because the time spent checking will follow the 1, 3, 6, 10, 15 ... sequence that describes the number of connections needed in a full mesh network. (This is the Fibonacci sequence.)
If the group gets too large, the time and stress consumed in dominance tests will weaken the leader, and he or she will fail. Again assuming the group is too large, the stress will then quickly consume the replacement leader, and the next, and the next -- there will be chaos at the top.
This chaos at the top has probably evolved as the signal that a group should split. When the group splits, the time spent in dominance contests recedes dramatically (check the Fibonacci sequence above). With the group now half the size a leader can stay leader and stability comes to the group again.
The rules I have just described apply to most social animals. If the animals travel in packs, and those packs have dominance hierarchies, then dominance disputes are going to be serious affairs. I suspect the poor zookeeper that walked in on the loose chimps found himself embroiled in a dominance fight that the chimps had wanted to engage in for a long time -- the dominant chimp felt it was important to check who was on top -- himself or the zookeeper. The surprised zookeeper then handled his side of the fight poorly -- he didn't win, and he didn't convince the chimp that the chimp had won before the chimp took some big pieces out of his hide.
The human story is full of dominance checking, too. And in societies adapted to Stone Age technologies, such dominance checking doesn't look terribly different from that of other animals. As a result, Stone Age tribes tend to be limited to small sizes, and that size limit may be determined by the stress dominance checking puts on the leaders.
As agriculture becomes popular with humanity, a change in leadership techniques is required. Agriculture gains in efficiency when groups larger than hunter-gatherer tribes are marshaled to work on agricultural projects. To benefit fully from the agriculture invention, mankind also has to devise new leadership technologies, so that larger groups of people can work cooperatively.
One new leadership concept was the concept of hierarchy: A leader could be a leader to some people, but a follower to others. A second innovative concept was the virtual leader: A leader who was not there, but whom two potential dominance contenders could both agree was their leader, so they could then cooperate. Kings and monotheistic gods are examples of virtual leaders. The concept of the warrior-priest class becoming dominant in a culture was a fusion of these two concepts, hierarchy and having a virtual leader. A great thinker who overtly supported hierarchy was Confucius, and he wrote down guidelines on how to think about it.
Changing dominance practices may be a very recent event in human evolution. It may be as recent as the dividing line between prehistoric and historic societies. Ancient Egypt may have emerged from prehistoric Egypt as the Egyptians mastered new leadership technologies and used the new leadership technologies to build farms, cities, and pyramids.
It may be that prehistoric mankind was too wild at heart to form larger groups. It may be that this wildness was deliberately bred out of those human groups that were mastering agriculture.
How so? By arranged marriages -- a family in an agricultural society is going to be attracted to mates who can "get with the program" rather than those who are suitable, but loose cannons or "uppity" (chronic dominance checkers).
If so, part of the progress of mankind that has taken place during the historic generations has been a profound enhancing of mankind's ability to cooperate at the expense of the individual's propensity to test dominance. Prehistoric adult humans may have been as cranky and treacherous as the adult chimps of Hogle Zoo, but those tribes that embraced agriculture had to breed that out of their emotional makeup, and the more they bred it out, the more they prospered.
The human psyche may not have altered qualitatively since mankind gave up living in Stone Age hunter-gatherer tribes, but it's likely that there have been some quantitative differences that have been changing mankind's genotype. These changes are likely to make people less dominance testing and more cooperative.
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