We are discussing community as one of the “Ten C’s” that can shed light on what it means to be human. We are currently examining community found among sperm whales, macaw parrots, and chimpanzees through the lens of Carl Safina’s powerful book Becoming Wild, in hopes that their experience might shed light on our own (whales and macaws have been at it for over fifty million years after all).
We learned in yesterday’s DM that chimpanzees, our closest relative by far among animal species, are prone to warfare, aggression, hierarchy and fits of dominance. (Does this sound at all familiar to you, human?) One can observe them drumming up conflict with enemy groups, breaking off large branches and dragging them around, throwing things in their enemies’ direction while hooting and shrieking in a “fever-pitched eruption” of sound.
But Safina, on observing all this bluster, comments that “the deeper nature of chimpanzees includes tender, empathetic concern for others and courageous altruism.” It is “always there, seldom noticed.” While they have “a preference for peace,” they also exhibit a “penchant for war.” How human is that? We too are prone both to violence and warfare, tenderness and empathy. Perhaps it takes culture (including education and ritual), to ensure the second path and not the first is dominant.
Among the chimps, males compete to be number one and
…the high-ranking are seldom secure. Ambition is nakedly present. Hierarchy is the preoccupation of male chimpanzee life. For them as for us, status seeking is an impulse, dominance its own reward. In a fight, allies back each other.
(Any deja vu here?) Envy plays a role too in this effort to be on the winning side.
Grooming among male chimps is about establishing social bonds that may be invoked for cooperation in territorial defense, hunting, and seizing and holding on to rank—what follows is preferential access to food and sex.
Power relationships like this are not found among bonobos, however, where females reign and “use their power to maintain peace.” Ancestors of bonobos and chimpanzees split around two million years ago and bonobo societies operate with “far less frequent and less serious violence.” Also, their societies are highly sexual. Lots of freedom and acting out in diverse expressions of sexuality is tolerated and indeed visible. It seems that “female power—whether in bonobos, elephants, sperm and orca whales, or lemurs—tend to create space for peace.” Not so with chimps. (Or humans?)
In contrast, both patriarchy and violence seem to be alive and well among chimps. “Virtually all the problems chimps create for themselves are caused by male aggression driven by male obsession with male status.” Is a “male obsession with status” an important part of human dynamics as well? Is hierarchy a driving force in human history, at least in its patriarchal period? Safina goes on:
In this process of ambition, suppression, forced respect, coercion, intergroup violence and episodic deadly violence with their own community, chimps are their own worst enemies.
Are humans our own worst enemies also?
To be continued.
See Carl Safina, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty and Achieve Peace, pp. 207, 211, 218, 223, 236.
See Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion.
Also see Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp. 343f., 359ff.
Banner Image: A pair of chimpanzees share a moment. Photo by satya deep on Unsplash
How does this understanding of chimpanzees, our closest relatives on earth, shed light on humanity as you experience it?
A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice
In A Spirituality Named Compassion, Matthew Fox delivers a profound exploration of the meaning and practice of compassion. Establishing a spirituality for the future that promises personal, social, and global healing, Fox marries mysticism with social justice, leading the way toward a gentler and more ecological spirituality and an acceptance of our interdependence which is the substratum of all compassionate activity.
“Well worth our deepest consideration…Puts compassion into its proper focus after centuries of neglect.” –The Catholic Register