Violence and Peace among Chimpanzee Communities

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).

Photographer Brian Skerry reflects on beautiful moments spent witnessing the very human interactions of sperm whales. Uploaded to YouTube by National Geographic.

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.

Biologist Frans de Waal studies the complex emotional life of apes – including how chimpanzees resolve conflicts. Here, de Waal discusses his subjects’ true capacity for fairness, reciprocity, and empathy, and how human beings measure up. Uploaded to YouTube by Topic

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.  

Bonobos are the only ape that doesn’t kill. And unlike any other ape, bonobos help each other out (a lot like humans do). But while they have humanlike traits, their biggest threat comes from humans. Uploaded to YouTube by National Geographic

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

Upcoming Events

Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

Share this meditation


Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox is made possible through the generosity of donors. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation

Search Meditations





Receive our daily meditations

4 thoughts on “Violence and Peace among Chimpanzee Communities”

  1. Avatar

    About the Bonobos: So many people seem not to know about them. Is successful female leadership In thriving societies a scary little secret Patriarchy would like to keep under wraps? Covid-19 has shown that nations do better with women in charge, viz. infection numbers in Scandinavia and NewZealand.
    By the way, wild horses also have ‘boss mares’ in charge.

    1. Rev. Dr. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Rev. Dr. Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Thank you Jo Anne! And I too think it is time for patriarchy to pass the torch to women who can be leaders just as well as men–and perhaps even better–as in the examples you give us in Scandinavia and New Zealand…

  2. Avatar

    After many many years of spiritual “research”, I have come to the conclusion that the very definition of God as male is what has gotten us in trouble. It seems much more likely that all emanates from a great Mother of mystery. Light comes out of and is held by darkness. The womb of compassion which is our vast universe clearly exemplifies this pattern for existence. Fire in water is blood. Once we stop our fear of darkness and drowning, maybe we can relax into the arms of love.

    1. Rev. Dr. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Rev. Dr. Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Martha, thank you for your comment and given what you have written here I think you would get a lot out of Matthew’s book: Naming the Unnamable…

Leave a Comment

To help moderate the volume of responses, the Comment field is limited to 1500 characters (roughly 300 words), with one comment per person per day.

Please keep your comments focused on the topic of the day's Meditation.

As always, we look forward to your comments!!
The Daily Meditation Team

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join us in meditation that supports your compassionate action

Receive Matthew Fox's Daily Meditation by subscribing below: