Peacemaking among primates

Frans de Waal, Harvard University Press 1991, 271pp, $17.95

By Joanna Santa Barbara (reviewer)

I found this an extraordinary and deeply fascinating book. De Waal begins with the idea that aggressive behaviur has been much studied among primates, but that its resolution has not, and that "intricate societies are unthinkable without conflict resolution." All primates are adapted to live in complex societies (just how complex you will discover in this book). They need to stay on good terms with each other, while at the same time express[ing] their self-seeking urges competitively with one another. Males compete especially for sex, females for food for themselves and their offspring. Conflicts are extremely common in the day to day life of the average ape or monkey, and a frequent response is some form of aggressive behavior-chasing, hitting, biting a finger or toe, back or neck, shoving. Many of these episodes are followed by some form of peacemaking.

One of the sources of fascination in this account is the wonderful variety of reconciliation techniques. De Waal has trained his primatologist's gaze on rhesus monkeys, stump-tailed macaques, and on the two hominoids with whom we share most of our evolutionary history and 99% of our DNA-chimpanzees and bonobos. Finally, he looks at the primate for the sake of whose future he has written the book-humans.

All of these primates live in social hierarchies-in the rhesus, very steep and rigidly enforced; in the bonobo, pretty flat and leniently enforced. This is one mode of conflict reduction: if you are the lowest in the hierarchy, you get out of everyone else's path and wait until last to feed. In the wild, there is probably a very high mortality rate for these individuals.

When conflicts do lead to some form of aggression (often an inhibited form) the protagonists will often approach each other a short time afterward. One will hold an outstretched arm to the other, inviting proximity and physical contact. Chimps will hug, groom intensively, kiss, mount, fondle each other's genitals. Sometimes a mediator will bring the two together. In the colony under observation, this was the oldest female, who would establish physical contact with each, and then withdraw, leaving the protagonists calmed and close to each other. Major reconciliotions are accompanied by loud vocalizations by other members of the colony.

Stump-tailed monkeys are strong on reconciliation. They kiss, inspect each other's genitals. One presents its rear end to the other, and the other clasps it, bringing the first to sit in his or her lap. In this species too, the colony squeals when a major reconciliation takes place. There is a high rate of aggressive acts-38 per individual per 10 hour period, but the intensity of the acts is low, and violence is rare. "There is both a lot of grooming and a lot of squabbling going on. Stumptails continuously alternate between friendliness and minor hostility, like an animated human family at the dinner table."

Bonobos, a relatively less studied close relative of humankind, use sex more than anything else for conflict resolution.

Their sex life has only a little to do with reproduction. Male-female, male-male, female-female and adult-juvenile conflicts are smoothed by genital rubbing, fondling, and thrusting. De Waal noted that punishment of juveniles was almost invariably followed by some form of reassurance and that "social life gave the impression of being ruled by compassion."

De Waal notes the capacity of these primates, especially the apes, for empathy, and their complex knowledge of the power relationships and alliances in their intricate society.

Entertaining though it might be to consider the usefulness of other primates' conflict resolution mechanisms for humans, the main point is how intrinsic to their societies is some form of conflict resolution, reconciliation and forgiveness. It is reasonable to think that, alongside our propensity to kill and injure each other in our pursuit of our selfish interests in competition with others, we may have a biologically based tendency to "make up" in order to keep living alongside each other. The crucial and problematic thing at this point in the evolution of our extraordinarily complex society is: whom do we recognize as a member of our group with whom it is worth reconciling? Rational appraisal makes clear that it is every human society on the face of the earth-we are now inextricably interdependent. Day to day political decisions have not caught up with this appraisal yet. Perhaps human peacemakers can ape the apes by promoting the importance of acts of reconciliation-an outstretched arm to Iraq, the delivery of the promised gifts (gift-giving is a peculiarly human form of reconciliation) to Nicaragua. There are major healing tasks we hardly know how to tackle-how to reconcile the warring Darods and Isaaqs of Somalia, the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, the two sides in recently ended wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador? We need every faculty of our clever brain, together with our apparently deeply based need for community harmony.

Joanna Santa Barbara is past president of Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1993

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1993, page 26. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Joanna Santa Barbara here

Peace Magazine homepage