[Paleopsych] CHE: We're All Machiavellians
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Mon Sep 26 23:54:00 UTC 2005
We're All Machiavellians
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.25
By FRANS B.M. DE WAAL
Given the obvious "will to power" (as Friedrich Nietzsche called it)
of the human race, the enormous energy put into its expression, the
early emergence of hierarchies among children, and the childlike
devastation of grown men who tumble from the top, I'm puzzled by the
taboo with which our society surrounds this issue. Most psychology
textbooks do not even mention power and dominance, except in relation
to abusive relationships. Everyone seems in denial.
In one study on the power motive, corporate managers were asked about
their relationship with power. They did acknowledge the existence of a
lust for power, but never applied it to themselves. They enjoyed
responsibility, prestige, and authority. The power grabbers were other
Political candidates are equally reluctant. They sell themselves as
public servants, only in it to fix the economy or improve education.
Have you ever heard a candidate admit he wants power? Obviously, the
word "servant" is doublespeak: Does anyone believe that it's only for
our sake that they join the mudslinging of modern democracy? Do the
candidates themselves believe this? What an unusual sacrifice that
It's refreshing to work with chimpanzees: They are the honest
politicians we all long for. When the political philosopher Thomas
Hobbes postulated an insuppressible power drive, he was right on
target for both humans and apes. Observing how blatantly chimpanzees
jockey for position, one will look in vain for ulterior motives and
I was not prepared for this when, as a young student, I began to
follow the dramas among the Arnhem Zoo chimpanzees from an observation
window overlooking their island. In those days students were supposed
to be antiestablishment, and my shoulder-long hair proved it. We
considered power evil and ambition ridiculous. Yet my observations of
the apes forced me to open my mind to seeing power relations not as
something bad but as something ingrained.
Perhaps inequality was not to be dismissed as simply the product of
capitalism. It seemed to go deeper than that. Nowadays this may seem
banal, but in the 1970s human behavior was seen as totally flexible;
not natural but cultural. If we really wanted to, people believed, we
could rid ourselves of archaic tendencies like sexual jealousy, gender
roles, material ownership, and yes, the desire to dominate.
Unaware of this revolutionary call, my chimpanzees demonstrated the
same archaic tendencies, but without a trace of cognitive dissonance.
They were jealous, sexist, and possessive, plain and simple.
I didn't know then that I'd be working with them for the rest of my
life, or that I would never again have the luxury of sitting on a
wooden stool and watching them for thousands of hours. It was the most
revelatory time of my life. I became so engrossed that I began trying
to imagine what made my apes decide on this or that action. I started
dreaming of them at night, and, most significant, I started seeing the
people around me in a different light.
I am a born observer. My wife, who does not always tell me what she
buys, has learned to live with the fact that I can walk into a room
and within seconds pick out anything new or changed, regardless of how
small. It could be just a new book inserted between other books, or a
new jar in the refrigerator. I do so without any conscious intent.
Similarly, I like to pay attention to human behavior. When picking a
seat in a restaurant I want to face as many tables as possible. I
enjoy following the social dynamics -- love, tension, boredom,
antipathy -- around me based on body language, which I consider more
informative than the spoken word. Since keeping track of others is
something I do automatically, becoming a fly on the wall of an ape
colony came naturally to me.
My observations helped me see human behavior in an evolutionary light.
By this, I mean not just the Darwinian light one hears so much about,
but also the apelike way we scratch our heads if conflicted, or the
dejected look we get if a friend pays too much attention to someone
At the same time, I began to question what I'd been taught about
animals: They just follow instinct; they have no inkling of the
future; everything they do is selfish. I couldn't square this with
what I was seeing. I lost the ability to generalize about "the
chimpanzee" in the same way that no one ever speaks about "the human."
The more I watched, the more my judgments began to resemble those we
make about other people, such as this person is kind and friendly, and
that one is self-centered. No two chimpanzees are the same.
It's impossible to follow what's going on in a chimp community without
distinguishing between the actors and trying to understand their
goals. Chimpanzee politics, like human politics, is a matter of
individual strategies clashing to see who comes out ahead. The
literature of biology proved of no help in understanding the social
maneuvering because of its aversion to the language of motives.
Biologists don't talk about intentions and emotions.
So I turned to Niccolò Machiavelli. During quiet moments of
observation, I read from a book published four centuries earlier. The
Prince put me in the right frame of mind to interpret what I was
seeing on the island, though I'm pretty sure that the philosopher
himself never envisioned this particular application of his work.
Among chimpanzees, hierarchy permeates everything. When we bring two
females inside the building -- as we often do for testing -- and have
them work on the same task, one will be ready to go while the other
hangs back. The second female barely dares to take rewards, and won't
touch the puzzle box, computer, or whatever else we're using in the
experiment. She may be just as eager as the other, but defers to her
"superior." There is no tension or hostility, and out in the group
they may be the best of friends. One female simply dominates the
In the Arnhem colony, the alpha female, Mama, did occasionally
underline her position with fierce attacks on other females, but she
was generally respected without contest. Mama's best friend, Kuif,
shared her power, but this was nothing like a male coalition. Females
rise to the top because everyone recognizes them as leader, which
means there is little to fight over. Inasmuch as status is largely an
issue of personality and age, Mama did not need Kuif. Kuif shared in,
but did not contribute to, Mama's power.
Among the males, in contrast, power is always up for grabs. It's not
conferred on the basis of age or any other trait, but has to be fought
for and jealously defended in the face of contenders. If males form
coalitions, it's because they need each other. Status is determined by
who can beat whom, not just on an individual basis but in the group as
It does not do a male any good if he can physically defeat his rival,
if each time he tries to do so the whole group jumps on top of him. In
order to rule, a male needs both physical strength and buddies who
will help him out when a fight gets too hot. When Nikkie was alpha,
Yeroen's assistance was crucial. Not only did Nikkie need the old
male's help to keep a powerful third male in check, but he was also
unpopular with the females. It was not unusual for females to band
together against him. Yeroen, being highly respected, could stop such
mass discontent by positioning himself between Nikkie and the
But with complex strategies come miscalculations, as Nikkie showed
several years later, when he became so intolerant toward his partner,
Yeroen, that he lost his support and immediately dropped in rank.
Nikkie had underestimated his dependence on the old fox. This is why
we speak of political "skills": It's not so much who you are, but what
you do. We are exquisitely attuned to power, responding quickly to any
If a businessman tries to get a contract with a large corporation, he
will be in meeting after meeting with all sorts of people from which a
picture emerges of rivalries, loyalties, and jealousies within the
corporation he is visiting, such as who wants whose position, who
feels excluded by whom, and who is on his way down or out. This
picture is at least as valuable as the organizational chart of the
company. We simply could not survive without our sensitivity to power
Power is all around us, continuously confirmed and contested, and
perceived with great accuracy. But social scientists, politicians, and
even laypeople treat it like a hot potato. We prefer to cover up
underlying motives. Anyone who, like Machiavelli, breaks the spell by
calling it like it is, risks his reputation. No one wants to be called
"Machiavellian," even though most of us are.
Frans B.M. de Waal is a professor of psychology and director of the
Living Links Center, part of the Yerkes National Primate Research
Center, at Emory University. This article is excerpted from Our Inner
Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, to be
published next month by Riverhead Books.
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