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Machiavellian Monkeys

January 2008 - Research by Dario Maestripieri published in his recent book Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World concludes that humans and rhesus macaque monkeys share tendencies towards nepotism and political maneuvering.

Dario Maestripieri, associate professor in comparative human development and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago said:

"After humans, rhesus macaques are one of the most successful primate species on our planet; our Machiavellian intelligence may be one of the reasons for our success."

Drawing on 20 years research in Europe, Atlanta, and an island in Puerto Rico, the author explains that rhesus macaques live in complex societies of about 50 individuals with strong dominance hierarchies and enduring social bonds between related females. Individuals ruthlessly compete for social status and power using aggression, nepotism, complex political alliances and sex; tactics similar to those suggested by Machiavelli to Renaissance political leaders.

Alpha males use threats and violence to access the most desirable sleeping places, food, and females. Like human dictators, dominant monkeys use frequent, unpredictable aggression to intimidate less powerful members of the group who become marginalized and vulnerable as a result.

Dario Maestripieri commented:

"In rhesus society, dominants always travel in business class and subordinates in economy, and if the flight is overbooked, it's the subordinates who get bumped off the plane. Social status can make the difference between life and death in human societies too" (for example Hurricane Katrina where the death toll largely comprised poorer members of the community).

The author goes on to explain that male macaques form alliances with more powerful individuals and scapegoat those lower down the hierarchy; a useful Machiavellian strategy for mid-ranking monkeys under attack. Altruism is rare and usually a form of nepotism. Mothers help daughters achieve and maintain a status similar to their own. Females use Machiavellian strategies in reproduction; for example, having frequent sex with the alpha male to increase the prospects of him subsequently protecting their infant.

Dario Maestripieri cautioned:

"But while they have lots of sex with the alpha male and make him think he's going to be the father of their baby, the females also have sex with all the other males in the group behind the alpha male's back" (in case the alpha male is sterile, dies or loses power before the baby is born).

Group power struggles sometimes culminate in revolt, in which the most dominant family is suddenly attacked by entire subordinate families resulting in drastic changes in the power structure similar to the outcome of human revolutions. The one situation in which the existing social structure evaporates is when one group of rhesus macaques confronts another. Rhesus macaques dislike strangers and will viciously attack their own image in a mirror in the belief that they are under threat. "When warfare begins even a low-ranking rhesus loner becomes an instant patriot. Every drop of xenophobia in rhesus blood is transformed into fuel for battle."

Dario Maestripieri explained:

"What rhesus macaques and humans may have in common is that many of their psychological and behavioral dispositions have been shaped by intense competition between individuals and groups during the evolutionary history of these species."

The author argues that the capacity to function like a human army may explain why rhesus groups have proved so successful in competition with other primates. Larger human brains may have evolved in response to the need for Machiavellian solutions to social problems.

Dario Maestripieri concluded:

"Our Machiavellian intelligence is not something we can be proud of, but it may be the secret of our success. If it contributed to the evolution of our large brains and complex cognitive skills, it also contributed to the evolution of our ability to engage in noble spiritual and intellectual activities, including our love and compassion for other people."



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