Biologists tell us that we humans are closely related to other mammals within the primate family, sharing about 98% of our genetic material with chimpanzees. Primates instinctively adhere to the old hierarchy of alpha males and alpha females, but they tend to temper their instincts for dominance and ruthless competition with glimmers of collaboration based on greater intelligence (driven by larger brains) and greater reliance on communication within the group. Alpha male chimps are not necessarily the biggest or strongest, but are more often the savviest when it comes to forming political coalitions with other group members.


Since the smaller primate species (not so much the massive gorillas) are physically unable to compete with the most powerful predators in their neighborhood, they must rely on communication and collaboration tempered by recognition of mutual dependency. Thus when an individual chimp foraging for food comes across a banana tree full of beautiful fruit, his first impulse may be to chow down, but his second impulse is generally to alert the rest of the chimp community to the location of the prized bananas. As a consequence, all the other chimps will return the favor when they find a nifty source of food themselves. Only the most selfish and stupid chimps try to hog the bananas for themselves, and they eventually pay the price by being shut out of the communal bounty of their siblings, cousins, and friends.

Research has uncovered a couple of interesting hallmarks of chimp behavior. Franz deWaal gave two chimps small edible treats over a period of several days and then offered one of them a much better treat than the other. The chimp who got the normal treat felt cheated and threw his treat at the experimenter rather than eat it. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate the implications concerning human beings who feel cheated over unfair treatment because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, or gender, especially given the much greater human capacity for thought and imagination.

Next Up: Takeaways from Animal Behavior