Monday, May 25, 2009

Strength is Weakness, John McCain, Hillary Clinton

I was reading Frans de Waal's 2005 book "Our Inner Ape" last fall during the political season. I guess de Waal had been observing some of the previous election seasons with the eyes of a primatologist when he was working on the book and he made an interesting observation about John McCain's behavior at the 2000 Republican convention.

In the book, de Waal presents a lot of observations about chimpanzee society. He combines observations made in the wild and the more detailed observations possible in captivity. Chimpanzee society is a male dominated society. The alpha male rules, but there's a lot more going on that just that. There are various alliances running through both the males and the females, and there is a lot of political maneuvering to establish the hierarchy. de Waal describes in great detail one particular chimpanzee power struggle which took place at the Arnhem Zoo in Holland, where it could be observed in minute detail. The alpha male at one point was the strongest chimp, Luit. Though he was strongest, he fell to a coalition between a younger contender, Nikkie, supported by an older well respected male, Yeroen. de Waal uses the dynamics of the situation to illustrate a somewhat counter-intuitive principle in politics: Strength is Weakness.
When the very powerful Luit was alpha, Yeroen had some respect, but Luit did not need Yeroen's support to be alpha. But by backing the weaker contender for alpha, Nikkie, Yeroen was making a shrewd political maneuver. Sure enough, after Luit was overthrown (actually killed) and Nikkie was the new alpha, Nikkie's tenuous hold on the position of alpha meant that Yeroen's support was essential resulting in Yeroen getting a lot more sex than your usual chimpanzee second in command.

de Waal is an astute observer and he connects this with coalition theory. He recounts how he was once invited to a think tank in Washington, D.C. along with people from diverse disciplines: policy makers, anthropologists, psychologist, military, political scientists, de Waal being the only primatologist. This was after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the folks in D.C. were brainstorming what to do now that the USA was the obvious alpha country. Only de Waal and one of the political scientists spoke out against the idea that the USA now had free rein to do what it pleased. The political scientist based his objection on military history rather than animal behavior, but the insight was similar to de Waal's. I remember that period of triumphalism well. People postulating what we were going to do with the huge "peace dividend" now that the Soviet Union was no longer a threat. Strength is weakness. Being the most powerful nation on the block made us one of the least attractive coalition partners (aside from the UK and the "special relationship"). The right thing to do according to coalition theory would be to hunker down so as not to stand out, de-emphasize our power and get shoulder to shoulder with the other players to make being in coalition with us attractive. He describes the I-told-you-so moment of seeing the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Russia proclaiming together their opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. Being the leader by merely being the strongest is not the most secure position, it's better to have strength through coalition.

But, back onto the thread leading to McCain. There can be a lot of conflict in the male dominated chimp society and the conflict can be very dangerous; chimps are powerful animals. After the fall of Luit and the rise of the Nikkie-Yeroen coalition, de Waal says:

Infighting among coalition partners is so threatening that they desperately try to reconcile, especially the one who stands to lose the most, which often is the one at the top. Yeroen and Nikkie were always in a a hurry to make up after a fight: they needed to present a united front. One moment they'd be running around screaming at each other, usually in competition over a female, and the next they'd fling their arms around each other and make up with a kiss. They signaled to everyone else that they intended to stay in power. The day they failed to reconcile was the day both of them dropped in rank.

de Waal points out how the same dynamic is at work in human politics. After one candidate has won the primary, the other usually rushes to endorse him. He cites John McCain endorsing George W Bush at the 2000 Republican Convention. From a article about the event:

"I endorse Governor Bush," McCain said without smiling. He took an actor's beat with Bush hanging above his shoulder, peering out at the crowd of press like a puppy eager for a pat. "I endorse Governor Bush." Beat. "I endorse Governor Bush I endorse Governor Bush I endorse Governor Bush."

By now McCain was bent in half, smiling so broadly there was no mistaking his meaning. If you need me to, that smile said.

"And I enthusiastically accept," Bush said.

If they ever touched each other, it was only because Bush was trying to get into McCain's lap.

An interesting observation by de Waal, but you may have noticed the name Hillary Clinton up in the title of this post as well. To get to that, we have to talk about the bonobos. Bonobos have gotten a fair amount of press in recent years, but a quick summary of the distinction. The chimpanzees we've been talking about up to now have all been the species Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee. There is another species in the genus Pan: Pan paniscus or the bonobo. A lot of the press they've gotten has been due to their sexual behavior, they have lots of it, all the time. But as interesting as that might be, what I'm interested in at the moment is their social structure. Groups of wild bonobos are dominated by the females, and using that word dominated might make one picture chimp society with the females in charge, but bonobo society is very different from chimp society. They form larger groups. There is more teamwork. There is much, much less fighting. There is sort of an alpha male, but his position is not obtained by fighting for it, he is the son of the alpha female. Bonobo females attain the alpha position much later in life than a male chimp would. A female earns her place by cooperating with the troop over a long life. An alpha female falls from power when she either dies or her faculties wane to a point where she can no longer fill the position. When a new alpha female is to be chosen, dominance struggles are far less common than in chimps, and whatever struggle there is is only between a few of the older females who have paid enough dues. The rest of the gals sit by and wait for the old gals to work it out. It's not a question of physical prowess, the younger bonobos are much stronger than the old gals in line for the alpha spot. Female bonobos wait their turn for the leadership position, and the rest of the females accept the females who have paid their dues.

Humans are not chimps and not bonobos, but we are equally related to both, and together they are our closest cousins. There are observations one can make about both chimp and bonobo societies which apply to human nature. We share bits of commonality with each, and maybe have a few tricks our our own. We can learn a lot about ourselves studying the similarities and differences we have with our closest cousins.

All of that brings us back to the aftermath of the 2008 Democratic primaries which was fresh in my mind when reading de Waal's book. Instead of the 2000 Republican scenario, with the loser repetitively acknowledging the new alpha Republican with a chimp-like grimace on his face, we have Hillary Clinton's icy shoulder in Barack Obama's direction for a painful period of time. Granted, the election was close, and there was a lack of clarity over a number of issues related to the delegate counts. In fact, if Edwards had come clean about his affair before the primaries started, there's a good chance Hillary would have won more delegates. In the world of male chimp politics, it was obvious that the upstart young Obama had pulled off an upset and the momentum was obviously now on his side. Meanwhile, over in the world of female bonobo politics, Hillary had paid her dues and it was her turn. The uncomfortable stretch before Clinton finally conceded to Obama seems to me less about the reconciliation of two political candidates and more about the reconciliation of two different views of the political process.

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