on January 11, 2004
DeWaal deftly narrates three changes in leadership among the colony of chimps in a zoo in the Netherlands (not Yerkes in GA, as another reviewer claims). Unlike many animals, chimpanzees can not dominate one another by use of brute force. No chimp is so strong that a coalition of two other males (or a coalition of females) can not successfully challenge his dominate position. This means that the dominate (male) chimp can only remain dominate if he succedes in coalition building.
Each of the "coups" DeWaal describes took place either because the dominate male became too greedy, or because another male built a stronger coalition. Similarly, the dominant make needs the cooperation (or at least neutrality) of most of the (more numerous, but weaker individually) females of the colony.
The comparison to human politics is right on the money. While chimpanzee politics does not have the veneer of ideology that covers the nitty gritty of human politics, I strongly suspect that the type of favors, distribution of goodies, and raw sex that DeWaal describes as the "currency" of chimpanzee politics is much closer to the way human politicians actually operate than most of us would like to admit.
If a Martian were to observe the functioning of the U.S. Sentate--without being able to understand a word anyone says, but with the ability to observe every transaction, day and night, over a period of sereral years, I suspect that the Martian's description of our politics would read very similarly to that of DeWaal's. Of course, for all we know, chimps too have a "language" which permits them to cover what appears to us to be raw politics with "political platforms".
One final note--the chimp need for coalitions to maintain primacy has obvious conotations for international relations in our world, where ideology plays less of a role, and coalitions have, at least since the end of WWII, been the key to maintaining a stable heirarchy of nations. Is the US now in danger of becoming the over confident "alpha" male that DeWaals describes?
on March 26, 2001
excellent book. de waal's thesis, as i understand it, is finding and exposing analogies to human behavior among other animals in order to better understand human behavior (a thesis he extends in _good natured_ to show that our "animal" behaviors are also behaviors of kindness and compassion) _chimpanzee politics_ reads like a novel as it follows chronicles the group dynamics of a chimpanzee colony over several years; and in those group dynamics we see enough sex, scheming, and politics to fuel a soap opera or election campaign. the mirror that de waal holds up to us through this book is at once funny, fascinating, and humbling. if one reason you read novels is to appreciate the universality of the human condition (that is, that you like to live vicariously in other times or places to experience conditions as other humans do), then get this book and prepare yourself to appreciate just how universal much of our condition really is. you might be surprised at just how easily you vicariously experience life as chimpanzees do.
on October 27, 2002
This a a book that has gotten more attention for what people have said about it than for what is actually inside. Though there are some graphs and tables, don't let them scare you away: the text reads like a novel and certainly isn't overly technical or formally scientific. The story is a fascinating recollection principally about the sex and power struggles among a group of chimpanzees that lived in a zoo in the Netherlands in the mid 1970's.
Some have claimed that the author has advocated using the complexities of chimpanzee social structure to shed light on human politics, but, if anything, the exact opposite is true: de Waal says very little abut non-chimpanzee societies until the last chapter and, throughout the book, freely and unapologetically employs human intentions, actions, and emotions to shed light on chimp culture.
If you're prepared to cast aside any preconceived notions you may have, this book makes an enjoyable introduction to pop-sci primatology.
Having read a few other books on animals, this book was a breath of fresh air. It did not reduce animal behaviors as spontaneous or irrational. The book goes through chimpanzee politicking. Chimpanzee researchers and scholars for long had suggested that chimpanzees made decisions on-the-fly and never thought about the future consequences of their current decisions. However, de Waal observes and explains that this is not true. Chimpanzees are very smart and forward-thinking animals. de Waal shows that they pursue power and status and are highly political animals. As you read through the book, you start realizing how much in common we are to our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. This book is a must-read for those entering politics or working for politicians.
on December 18, 2001
Chimps, it is said, are not able to perform cognitive tasks that a three-year-old human could master with ease. THis book shows how tricky it is to compare human and chimpanzee intelligence: the machiavellian chimpanzee princes in this gripping saga may not read or write, but appear to grasp the long-term consequences of their day-to-day activities, and plot deviously to gain power in the quicksand of shifting alliances. No three year old child has this kind of concentration and determination, to my knowledge! It makes for gripping reading, and raises fascinating questions about the evolution of our own intelligence, social hierarchies and power-seeking instincts. You'll want to read it again as soon as you've finished...
on April 3, 2001
The premise of this book is that it is possible to gain an understanding of human behavior by understanding the behavior of chimpanzee's since human beings are really just "naked apes". Trash. The hypothesis is that humans share 98% of the same genes as apes and are therefore almost the same. Statistical madness. Humans share 50% of their genes with a microbe and 80% with a poodle. There are billions of genes, the vast majority of which are redundant and the so-called only 2% difference between apes and humans amounts to millions of genetic differences. This book is a good study of ape behavior but the assertions that ape behavior can be projected onto correctly understanding human behavior is ridiculous but makes for good reading in this publish or perish world.