Monday, December 02, 2002


Conflict resolution
Zoologists used to believe that violence in human society could be traced to higher primates' natural propensity for aggression. But a new theory says that apes are not antagonistic at all. Sanjida O'Connell investigates
02 December 2002

In the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a group of hominids are gathering food and quarrelling with a rival tribe over access to a waterhole. Violence erupts, and one male beats another to death with a bone. The murder weapon is thrown in the air, and we fast-forward millions of years of human evolution by cutting from the image of the flying bone to a spaceship in flight. The switch in scene has become an icon of how human endeavour can be traced back to a violent ancestry....

...More recently, primatologists such as Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson have followed in that tradition. In their book Demonic Males, they describe the evil inherent in biology. Their fellow primatologist Alison Jolly, commenting on their work, says: "This book shows why border raids, rape and warfare are the natural inheritance of the human ape. It challenges us to shape human lives more wisely than the gang life of the chimpanzee, our heroic, demonic alter ego."

Now, two primatologists have come up with a new model of primate behaviour, which challenges the central tenet of much of primatology. They believe that apes and monkeys live co-operatively and affectionately with little antagonism....

To prove their case, the two collected data from the vast literature of primate observations published in scientific journals.... When they had collated their results, they discovered a startling fact: despite the portrayal of primates as incredibly gregarious animals, only 3 per cent of a gorilla's time is spent being social.

The figure is 4-15 per cent in gibbons, and chimpanzees spend a quarter of their time devoted to one another. A tiny fraction of that time was spent being aggressive – 0.6 antagonistic events an hour in monkeys, and only 0.09 events in apes. As the researchers point out, that includes life-threatening attacks but also any kind of aggression, from chasing to a hard stare....

...If Sussman is right, we have evolved from creatures who are not demonic at all, but peaceful and easy-going – but who mostly are surviving and not attempting to be social at all. As Sussman says, "When animals have evolved to live in a group, they live peacefully and they enjoy it. They have to."