Are chimpanzees naturally violent? Or is chimpanzee violence the result of human interference, such as artificial feeding or habitat loss? Along with 29 co-authors, I examine this question in a paper published this week in Nature.
Jane Goodall writes in her magnum opus, The Chimpanzees of Gombe:
Early field studies of chimpanzees (including my own) gave rise to the myth of the gentle, peace-loving ape. As more data on chimpanzee behavior have been collected over the years, this myth has gradually been dispelled. (Goodall 1986: 313)
Despite observations of violence in chimpanzees by Goodall and many others, a few people still cling to the myth that chimpanzees are peace-loving apes at heart, moved to violence only by human impacts. This view was most fully developed by Margaret Power in her 1991 book, The Egalitarians—Human and Chimpanzee.
As far as I know, Power never studied chimpanzees in the wild. Instead, she based her arguments on reading the literature, especially Goodall’s early work, and also work by other people who had conducted shorter studies of chimpanzees at other sites, such as Vernon and Frankie Reynolds’ study of chimpanzees at Budongo Forest, Uganda, and Michael Ghiglieri’s study of chimpanzees at Ngogo, in Kibale Forest, also in Uganda.
Power distinguished “naturalistic” studies of chimpanzees from “provisioning” studies, in which chimpanzees were given food by researchers. This distinction follows a long tradition of researchers who have argued that Gombe chimpanzees were no longer truly “wild” after Goodall started feeding them bananas (e.g., Reynolds, 1975).
Power noted that in a 1974 paper, Richard Wrangham showed that Gombe chimpanzees behaved more aggressively in “camp,” where researches fed them bananas, than in the rest of their range, where they fed on naturally occurring foods. While Wrangham explained this change in behavior as a natural response to competing over an especially rich and concentrated source of food, Power developed a more elaborate argument based on psychological frustration theory, arguing that chimpanzee behavior was fundamentally changed by frustrations encountered at the feeding station.
Power argued that all sorts of chimpanzee behavior described by Goodall and colleagues, such as territorial behavior, dominance hierarchies, intense competition for mating opportunities, bullying by the alpha male, hunting of monkeys, and lethal aggression, were not natural behavior, but were instead the result of frustration caused by restrictive feeding of chimpanzees. She made the same arguments for Mahale, the study site established by Toshisada Nishida shortly after Goodall began her studies at Gombe. Nishida and his team used sugar cane to attract chimpanzees to an observation area. Power argued that this fundamentally changed their behavior, just as it had for Gombe chimpanzees. Only the earlier, “naturalistic” observations of chimpanzees could be trusted. Power discounts all later observations from these sites, even though at both Gombe and Mahale, as chimpanzees became better habituated, researchers increasingly followed chimpanzees throughout their forest range, rather than focusing on observations at the feeding stations.
When Power published her book in 1991, chimpanzees had been studied at many different sites across Africa, but understanding of chimpanzee behavior in the wild was still very much dominated by studies from Gombe and Mahale. Nonetheless, new long-term studies were already underway at places including Taï Forest in Côte d’Ivoire and Kibale Forest in Uganda. These studies have continued, and new studies have been established at other sites. Researchers eventually stopped feeding chimpanzees at both Mahale and Gombe, and none of the newer study sites used artificial feeding to observe chimpanzees. Many of the new sites were in large, relatively undisturbed protected areas. And yet chimpanzees at all these sites demonstrated patterns of behavior that Power argued were the result of provisioning, including dominance hierarchies, bullying by alpha males, intense competition among males for mating opportunities, hunting of monkeys, and territorial behavior. These observations soundly refuted Power’s hypothesis that the behavior of provisioned chimpanzees was fundamentally different from that of unprovisioned chimpanzees.
Nonetheless, when I started studying chimpanzees in the mid-1990s, the number of detailed observations of lethal aggression in chimpanzees was still small. The most detailed accounts of killing were those from Gombe and Mahale. It seemed at the time reasonable to wonder whether those killings were the result of something unusual about those sites, such as the artificial feeding that occurred there. Or perhaps something else was responsible, such as the ecology of these sites, both located near the southeastern limits of the range of the species.
When I started graduate school, I was mainly interested in language evolution. I wanted to do playback experiments with chimpanzees in order to test whether they had symbolic communication, like Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth had found with vervet monkeys. I went to Harvard to work with Marc Hauser, who had been a student of Cheney and Seyfarth, and Richard Wrangham, who had established a new long-term study of the Kanyawara community in Kibale.
Although my main focus was language evolution and communication, I was also inspired by two papers published in Current Anthropology: “The human community as a primate society,” by Lars Rodseth, Richard Wrangham, and Barb Smuts, and “Intergroup aggression in chimpanzees and humans,” by Joe Manson and Richard Wrangham. The approach of these papers, seeking to explain human behavior through comparative study of other primates, seemed exactly the sort of thing we should be doing to gain a proper understanding of our species.
In 1996, I started my first field season at Kanyawara, doing a pilot study of playback experiments. These turned out to be the first successful playback experiments to wild chimpanzees — and they also ended up shifting my focus from language evolution to intergroup aggression.
We knew it would be hard to do playback experiments with chimpanzees. They are smart, and fast. We worried that playing soft calls at close range wouldn’t work easily, as they would find the speaker and catch on that something wasn’t right. So we needed to work with loud calls that would let us set up the speaker far away from the chimps. We also needed to focus on an experimental question that could be answered with relatively few trials, since we figured chimpanzees would habituate quickly to the experimental situation if we did the same thing over and over. So we settled on simulating intergroup events, playing a single pant-hoot call from a male stranger, using calls that John Mitani had recorded from chimpanzees at Mahale. This would enable us to test whether chimpanzees could assess the relative numbers of their opponents, much as Karen McComb, Craig Packer and Anne Pusey had recently shown with lions (McComb et al., 1994). As a result of choosing to do these particular experiments, I ended up shaping the rest of my dissertation research around questions of intergroup aggression.
In the fall after I had finished my first round of experiments at Kibale, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson published Demonic Males. This book inspired a closer look at intergroup aggression in chimpanzees. It also attracted criticism, particularly I think from people responding to the title of the book, rather than its contents. Among the more vocal critics have been Bob Sussman (1999, 2013) and Brian Ferguson (2011). Both Sussman and Ferguson have resurrected Margaret Power’s arguments that chimpanzee violence is not natural, but somehow the fault of humans.
At the same time, the evidence for chimpanzee violence continued to accumulate, not just at Gombe, but at sites across Africa. Many cases of violence have been reported from sites that were never provisioned. Critics such as Sussman and Ferguson have therefore shifted the focus away from provisioning and more towards other forms of disturbance: habitat loss, deaths from poaching and disease, and so forth.
In 2001, I finished my PhD and started working as a post-doc with Anne Pusey at the University of Minnesota. My main goal as a post-doc with Anne was to look at intergroup aggression data from Gombe, one of the very few sites where neighboring habituated communities could be studied. This provided a rare opportunity to examine intergroup aggression from both sides of the interaction.
Working at Gombe also increased my awareness of issues related to human impacts. I ended up spending three years based at Gombe full-time, working for the Jane Goodall Institute. Conservation issues are important at every ape research site, but are particularly prominent at Gombe, given that it is a relatively small park exposed to substantial human impacts, especially deforestation outside the park. And throughout the time I have been working at Gombe, chimpanzees have, from time to time, attacked and killed one another.
In thinking about human impacts and chimpanzee violence, there are really two major issues to consider. One is whether human impacts, such as provisioning and habitat destruction, affect rates of violence. The other question is whether violence is mainly adaptive behavior or not. For example, Wrangham (1974) clearly showed that rates of aggression were higher at the feeding station than in the forest. But he argued this was a natural, adaptive response to a highly concentrated, high quality food source. Individuals who competed aggressively for bananas would get to feast on soft, easily digested fruits, rich in sugar and starch. Individuals who stayed out of the fray would go hungry, or have to go searching long distances in the forest for natural foods.
Likewise, during the decades when forests adjacent to Gombe were being cleared for farmland, it seems entirely plausible that this could lead to higher rates of violence, as chimpanzees retreated into the remaining protected area inside the park. If the number of chimpanzees in the area stayed the same, but the available habitat shrank, this could lead to increased aggression. In this case, though, increased aggression might well be a strategy by which individuals increased their reproductive success. Individuals that simply retreated, rather than defending their land, would be forced out of the good areas, while the aggressive victors would enjoy the spoils.
Critics such as Sussman and Ferguson seem mainly interested in arguing that aggressive behavior is maladaptive. They don’t like the idea that aggressors might benefit from violent behavior, and seem mainly worried about the consequences of such arguments. For example, if we argue that violent behavior is favored by natural selection, does that mean that we must then excuse violent behavior, and accept it as natural?
I think that such concerns are unjustified, however. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is desirable, or inevitable. Smallpox virus is natural, but deeply undesirable, and humans have intentionally and with great effort eradicated this virus. We have likewise made great strides towards reducing rates of warfare and other violence.
Nonetheless, whether chimpanzee violence is natural, or the result of human impacts, is an important question to get right. I have spent a number of years trying to answer it. I first presented a version of this study in 2004, in a talk at the International Society for Research on Aggression meetings in Santorini, Greece, titled: “Is chimpanzee intergroup violence the result of human disturbance?”
In this earlier effort, based mainly on the published literature, I didn’t find any strong link between human impacts and chimpanzee violence. By this time killings had been reported from several sites that had never been provisioned, including Ngogo and Kanyawara in Kibale Forest, Uganda, and Budongo, also in Uganda. But I had other things on my plate, and ended up putting this study on the back burner for several years.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I started working on the project again in earnest. Once I got started I realized that to really get a handle on this question, published data wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to make sure that the data from each site was accurate, and that variables demographic and ranging data were all coded the same way. I wanted independent ratings of disturbance from each site. And I knew from my own experience that it can take years from the time that killings are observed to when detailed descriptions are written up and published. A study using just the published cases would result in a potentially severe underestimation of rates of violence. So I started contacting researchers at other sites and asked if they would be interested in participating. In the end the study included all the main long-term studies of chimpanzees and bonobos, and a long list of co-authors.
The main take home message of our study is that chimpanzee violence is natural behavior, not the result of human impacts. We have two main lines of evidence for this.
First, if we look across study sites, the degree of human impacts doesn’t explain the variation in rates of killing that we see. The site with the highest rate of killing, Ngogo, is in a forest with relatively low human impacts, and these chimpanzees were never artificially fed by researchers. In contrast, the site with the highest human disturbance rating, Bossou, is a site where killing has never been observed, despite many years of observation. Instead, overall killing rates are better explained by differences among species (chimpanzees kill more often than bonobos), and differences in demography (groups with more males, and that live at higher population densities, have more killing). Moreover, high population density appears to reflect good habitat quality, rather than human disturbance.
Second, if we look at the detailed patterns of who is killing whom, we see patterns that make sense from an evolutionary viewpoint, but which are hard to explain otherwise. Attackers did not kill at random. Instead, they mainly killed members of other groups (66% of killings). They mainly killed when they had an overwhelming numerical advantage (median 8:1 ratio of attackers to victims in intergroup killings). Attackers were much more often male than female (92% of participants in attacks) and they mainly killed males (73% of victims). They mainly killed when it was easy to kill victims, either because of a strong numerical advantage, or because the victim was weak (such as infants).
People often ask what the implications of this study are for human
behavior. I would say that definitive claims about human behavior need to be based on data from humans. But there are some important things we can learn from chimpanzee studies. One is that we can get much more detail on the contexts of killings in chimpanzees than is normally possible in human studies. We can watch them do everything in their daily lives, including killing — something we can’t do easily, ethically, or legally with humans. So we can collect lots of data that is useful for testing hypotheses about the biology of violence that apply to humans as well as other species. Another thing we have learned relates especially to the origins of warfare. Some people argue that warfare has a recent origin, due to some relatively new phenomenon, such as agriculture, or settled societies, or food storage, or property rights, or ideology, or new kinds of weapons, and so on. Chimpanzees have none of these things. They do sometimes use weapons (sticks and stones) but they don’t generally use them to kill each other. So the documentation of warlike behavior in chimpanzees shows that similar behavior could have occurred in humans long before the origin of agriculture and other evolutionarily recent innovations. It also raises the intriguing possibility that humans and chimpanzees share similar patterns of violence due to our shared evolutionary history; we may have inherited these patterns of behavior from our common ancestor.
The existence of bonobos, however, with their much less violent societies, highlights the need to be cautious in how much we infer along these lines. It is possible that the lineages leading to humans and chimpanzees have both become more violent, or that the lineage leading to bonobos has become more peaceful over evolutionary time. We don’t yet know the answer to this question.
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