Friday, January 05, 1996

Chimpanzee politics & political theory (Frans de Waal)

The following is a handout from a course on social & political theory that I taught (at Williams College) in 1996. It may be of more general interest.

In that course and a few others, I have used Frans de Waal's brilliant book Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes as one of a cluster of readings to help open up the question of what we mean when we talk about "politics."

(Aristotle, Weber, Tocqueville, and a few others fill in some elements of human politics and political sociology that go beyond what chimps have ... at least, in my opinion. But the elements on which de Waal focuses actually accord pretty well with what most journalists have in mind when they cover "politics" and when they describe some phenomenon as "political.")

De Waal's deeply insightful and provocative work on these subjects also includes Peacemaking among Primates--which is a more complex and, perhaps ironically, in some ways a darker book than Chimpanzee Politics.

--Jeff Weintraub
Political Science 130
Spring 1996
Jeff Weintraub

Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (selections)

You will find this, I think, a vivid and engrossing account of the goings-on in a particular group of chimpanzees. But be careful not to get entirely caught up in the surface of the story: What de Waal is offering here is not just a descriptive account, but a theoretically sophisticated analysis of chimpanzee politics. In fact, this book is really a brilliant study in political sociology--it merely happens to deal, not with humans, but with our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees.

It therefore provides a good occasion for us to begin thinking systematically about what we mean by "politics" (and about the different forms and conceptions of "politics" we encounter in the human world).

What does de Waal mean by "politics" in this context? (The way to answer this question is not just to go looking for explicit definitions, but to think through the logic of the book's overall argument.) What are the key practices and mechanisms of chimpanzee "politics" (or, as de Waal puts it at one point, its "funda­men­tal themes")? What are the crucial purposes and motivations that drive the "political" actions of these chimpanzees? And what is the role of chimpanzee "politics" in the larger pattern of chimpanzees' social life?

(De Waal is quite clear and careful in identifying and explaining his key concepts, and he often marks them with italics. So, when you run across italicized words or phrases, be alert: be sure you understand the meaning and significance of the concept involved; and, as you read through the selections, think about how these concepts are interconnected in de Waal's overall analysis.)

=> A central message of this analysis, de Waal argues, "is that the roots of politics are older than humanity" (pp. 211-212). In the end, do you find this argument convincing? (E.g., do you see important parallels between chimpanzee politics and human politics, as you understand the latter?)

=> Can you think of any significant elements of human "politics" that are missing from chimpanzee politics? If so, are they important? Would understanding them require broadening, refining, or otherwise rethinking the conception of "politics" with which de Waal is working (explicitly and implicitly)?[1] Or, on the other hand, do chimpanzee politics tell us everything we need to know about the basic elements of human political life?[2]

[1] Aristotle's Politics are about to answer these three questions with a resounding yes ...
[2] ... and this question with a resounding no.