Games Primates Play

The evolution and economics of human relationships.

How Politics and the Mafia Were Invented

Rhesus macaques had something to do with it

When my children and the Obama children were in the same school in Chicago, I once met Barack at a potluck party for parents and teachers and told him this story. He seemed very interested and asked me a lot of questions. I told him that human beings are political animals but we didn’t invent the game of politics: other primates play the same game. If I had to guess which species invented it, I would bet all my money on the rhesus macaque. Rhesus macaques’ political skills are on display when they fight for power with their fellow macaques. These monkeys squabble all the time, especially with their family members, just like we do.

In theory, when two monkeys fight, the larger and stronger individual should win. In practice, this would be true only if the fight took place in a dark alley with no one else around. Fights between two rhesus macaques, however, rarely happen without an audience, or without audience participation. Rhesus macaques make political alliances with their friends and relatives, political allies intervene in a fight on behalf of their protégé, and ultimately who wins a fight between two monkeys is determined not by their body size but by the power of their political allies.

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High-ranking macaques sometimes spontaneously join a fight between two other individuals, but more often than not, they are encouraged to do so by one of the fighters, the aggressor or the victim. For example, an aggressor may quickly alternate between threatening his victim and turning his head to solicit intervention from the alpha male. The aggressor will look repeatedly at the alpha male and attempt to make eye contact with him, or will position himself right in front of the alpha male with his back to him and his tail up. When victims of aggression ask for help from others, they use the same behaviors as the aggressors, but with a lot more screaming. They accomplish two goals with their screams: they disorient the aggressor, thereby interrupting the aggression, and they solicit the support of other individuals. When victims of aggression scream, their screams sound different depending on whether or not they are trying to fight back, and whether or not they are scared or in pain. Researchers who believe that rhesus macaques have a mysterious coded language, not discernible to the human ear, think that the victims’ screams also sound different depending on who the aggressor is and the circumstances of the aggression. In this view, when victims of aggression scream, they are broadcasting a message over the airwaves that might mean something like “Alert! Alert! I am under attack by a subject with the following characteristics: sex: female; age: fifteen; category: nonrelative; family of origin: top-ranking matriline. Note: subject is armed and dangerous. Note 2: I’m already in a lot of pain. Please help!” Whether or not the message reaches its intended recipient, whether or not it’s properly decoded, and more importantly, whether or not the intended recipient gives a damn about it, depends on who the transmitter is, who they are fighting against, and who else is watching and listening. You might expect that everyone would ask for help from the alpha male and the alpha female – the king and the queen of the group - but that’s not always a good idea for a couple of reasons. First, like all royals, the rhesus king and queen are very good at feigning indifference when the requests for help come from somebody at the bottom of their society. Second, if they are really bothered by all the noise and insulted by being asked to get their hands dirty with fighting, they may intervene and attack the victim who’s seeking help and not the aggressor.

Intervening in a fight on someone else’s behalf is a form of altruistic behavior. Unless that someone is a family member, intervening involves a decision-making process with some selfish calculations. This process has been studied by many social psychologists, but with people, not monkeys. They call this type of work bystander intervention research. Typically, social psychologists present a subject (the “bystander”) with a hypothetical scenario in which he or she witnesses a dispute between two people, or a car accident, or any other situation that might require an altruistic intervention, and then the subject is asked under what circumstances he or she would be willing to help. The researchers then attempt to uncover the variables that affect the subject’s decision making (for example, the identity of the individual in need, the risks and rewards of intervention, or the presence of other individuals who might contribute help or judge the subject’s behavior). The social psychologists interested in bystander intervention research could learn something from the way rhesus macaques make decisions about joining a fight, but unfortunately most of them are not well acquainted with these monkeys.

Explaining altruistic intervention in monkeys or people may seem complicated but ultimately (if we leave issues of morality and religion aside), it all comes down to nepotism and politics. In rhesus macaques, agonistic intervention between family members – for example, maternal agonistic support of offspring - is a form of nepotism. Agonistic intervention between unrelated individuals is strictly politics. It is best explained by economics, by considering the costs and benefits of intervention. Take, for example, the behavior of adult males who have recently immigrated into a group. Since these males don’t have any offspring in the group, they never intervene to help infants and juveniles - there is no point in doing so. Instead, they typically intervene on behalf of other adult males or adult females; that is, individuals who might be able to help them in return. Adult males also typically help aggressors, not victims. Therefore, they don’t intervene to protect somebody who is in trouble. Instead, because aggressors are typically higher ranking than their victims, adult males usually help the individual who’s going to win the fight anyway. They also tend to help individuals ranking higher than themselves who are fighting against lower-ranking opponents; that is, individuals who don’t really need their help. Essentially, the adult males are not really helping; they are just sucking up to higher-ranking individuals at a minimal risk or cost to themselves. What they hope to accomplish is twofold: first, they hope to make friends with higher-ranking individuals and have their cheap help reciprocated; second, they hope to score dominance points with the victims of aggression. If the victims of aggression rank lower than the “helpers”, the helpers will reinforce their dominance over them and maintain the status quo. If the victims rank higher than the helpers, by intervening against them, the “helpers” hope to outrank them in the hierarchy. When males intervene to help females, they may even gain some sexual favors from them. So, the rules of opportunistic agonistic intervention are: help when it doesn’t cost you anything to do it, make friends with powerful individuals, and try to take advantage of any opportunity to consolidate or improve your position in the dominance hierarchy.

When rhesus macaques are the victims of aggression, there is another way in which they attempt to get other individuals involved - this time not as helpers, but as scapegoats. A monkey who’s just been attacked will immediately turn toward another monkey and chase, threaten, or directly attack that individual while looking back at the aggressor or other individuals and asking for their help. The scapegoat can simply be a random individual who was minding his or her own business near where the first fight erupted. More often than not, however, the scapegoat is not chosen randomly. First, the scapegoat is typically someone who ranks lower than both the victim and the aggressor and who has no chance of getting help from anybody else, either because he or she has few or no relatives or friends in the group or because his or her family is so low ranking and hopeless that its members don’t even bother to try to help one another anymore - in other words, a loser. Second, all the rhesus macaques in a group, except the monkey at the bottom of the hierarchy, have a favorite scapegoat, and whenever they are attacked, they will immediately look for their favorite scapegoat, even if he or she is not in the vicinity of the fight. Chances are, in fact, that the favorite scapegoat will not be in the vicinity of the fight because, knowing very well how the game works, he or she will take off and run as far away as possible every time his or her designated torturers get involved in a fight. Because the monkeys at the bottom of the hierarchy are the favorite scapegoats of many other individuals, they typically scatter all over the place whenever a fight breaks out within the group.

Scapegoating is a Machiavellian strategy that accomplishes many things at once. At a basic level, finding a scapegoat is the victim’s way of avoiding further aggression by diverting the aggressor’s attention away from itself and toward another individual. It’s the familiar “Why me? Hey, let’s all go after this guy instead!”  If they are successful in recruiting the help of their own aggressors or other individuals against the scapegoat, the original victims are also forming alliances with those individuals. Alliance formation through scapegoating can allow individuals to make friends with more powerful group members and reinforce their own dominance over the scapegoat. Very ambitious and Machiavellian macaques could even target a scapegoat who is higher ranking than themselves and use the situation to attempt to outrank that individual.

Scapegoating can have yet another function by serving as a deterrent against future aggression from the same aggressor. If a fight breaks out between two unrelated individuals, the victim can redirect aggression against a relative of the aggressor, typically a juvenile or an infant. In this case, scapegoating is really a form of retaliation against the aggressor’s family member and functions as a warning that if future attacks occur, the aggressor’s family members will suffer some painful consequences. So, not only did human beings not invent the game of politics; they didn’t invent the Mafia either.

 

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Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D., is a professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology at the University of Chicago.

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