Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Gombe Chimpanzee War (wikipedia.org)
134 points by gwern on Oct 19, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 30 comments

This is important also for our initially skeptical reaction to it. The fact that humans assumed that apes would never war shows the prevalence of the "noble savage" myth even among scientists.

The noble savage myth in turn is a modern (post-Renaissance) secularized version of "the fall" described in Genesis and other ancient religious myths. The idea is that God -- being good -- would never have intended nature to be full of violence and deception. In theology this is known as the problem of evil. Most Western religions solved the problem of evil by blaming ourselves -- we did it, and we inherited this sin, etc. Modern secular nature-worshippers (what I call "religious greens") have simply substituted nature for God and civilization or some other development for the fall-- it's a direct remapping of Judeo-Christian mythology.

"Uncorrupted" nature and pre-fall humans (if any exist, e.g. isolated tribes) must not have these characteristics according to the myth. If they are observed they must be a result of our "fallen" interference.

In reality nature is full of deception and warfare at all levels, and not just in predator-prey or parasite-host interactions but among members of the same species. This supports either an atheistic/naturalistic universe or a God whose nature is rather more complex than "God is good." If you want to keep theism, a polytheistic cosmology is also possible. Cultures who have a dualistic view of God or a polytheistic cosmos don't have monotheism's same sort of problem of evil.

This is also why I think suspension of value judgement is very important when studying nature, even human nature. Sometimes I gain the deepest insights into human behavior and culture when I try to look at things without making any value judgement.

> The idea is that God -- being good -- would never have intended nature to be full of violence and deception

That is interesting, I was not aware of it. It is kind of the opposite in Hindu philosophy. There is this idea of 'matsya nyana' which roughly translates to 'survival of the fittest' or 'law of the jungle' (it literally means bigger fish eats smaller fish) and the stories say that being civilized means that men must conquer this inherent desire for conquest and violence. When things go bad men behave like animals and destroy one another.

same concept as applied to other human cultures: Aztecs, Incas, Native Americans, Africans - they're all considered 'at one with nature', superior to European culture, when in fact they were just as bad (and in some cases) worse than the culture that displaced or enslaved them.

We've gone from one end of the spectrum to another w/ regard to our perceptions of 'other'.

Good point. "Other" used to be intrinsically evil and in need of our enlightenment. Now it's intrinsically superior. Neither is true.

I'm don't remember the exact anthropological evidence and data points for the claim but Gwynne Dyer, an awesome historian of modern, premodern and prehistoric war concluded that humans and chimps are statistically similar in their war culture. That is, roughly the same proportion of adult humans and chimps die in violent conflict with neighbors in a "natural" state.

This holds in hunter gatherer cultures, nomadic pasturalist cultures, and some middle ages cultures.

Many of the patterns are similar. Between core territories are large borderlands (often larger than the territories) where most conflicts occur. Most conflicts are opportunistic fights where one side has clearly superior numbers. If one side is established as overly weak, dawn raids occur on core territories.


No this is not known as terrorism, its known as raiding. This practice was widespread and common in the Border Region of England and Scotland.

The Border Reivers was a culture with established rules for their conduct. Night time raids would lead to revenge attacks to recover stolen property, and a clearly displayed revenge attack happened in broad daylight and anyone crossing its path, regardless of nationality, was required to join in and aid the attack.

Terrorism is a specific issue, designed specifically to cause terror as its primary motive. A raid is to aquire something, generally land or something of value and occasionally future security.

Calling 9/11 a dawn raid is about the same stretch of reality as calling a toothpick a spear.

I'm not sure how modern warfare or any warfare among groups of primates above the "natural" limits of a few hundred fit into this. Most people lived in groups of a few dozen until recently. Coalitions of human groups are hypothesized to have occurred around the paleolithic revolution and there is evidence of very large group efforts in existence. But these were probably temporary, fouling on war or other activities.

The Historian Yuval Noah Harari, has some fascinating theories about cooperation, mythology and language emerging together during the paleolithic revolution. After this we see "behaviorally" modern humans. The nature of this behavior is not well known but his ideas put the ability to form larger groups held together by mythology (Gorgoot is the King. We are the Googootah nation!) as the centerpiece of this behavior. Homo Sapien-Sapien's ability to 10X the effective group size put them apart in terms of their impact as a species, perhaps wiping out cousin species like Neanderthals (the timing works).

Getting back to Gwynne Dyer's work, the basic behavior of border conflicts resulting in annihilation (dawn raids) and territorial expansion whenever a group is too weak to defend the status quo. Part of the behavior is a colorful & stylized "warfare" where few get seriously injured. These were considered by anthropologists as an alternative to "real war" but later research showed that these exist alongside the brutality of surprise attacks on weaker opponents. The stylized version acts as a display of strength and a deterrence. Failure to achieve deterrence might lead to genocide.

The deterrence aspect has analogies in modern warfare. A fight between 5 and 10 adult warriors armed with spears and axes might favor the larger group, but how many of those 10 would be seriously injured? Losing half a dozen warriors endangers the community (there are always more enemies), so it's not worth the risk.

Overall, there are communal Gwynne Dyer did a sort of meta research and some first hand research trying to determine the percentage of adult deaths caused by inter community violence (warfare) and compared it to chimp research. He found striking similarities in both behavioral patterns and population effects.

If that similarity is not coincidental, it's revealing about our history. It probably dates back before Homo-Pan speciation four to six million years ago.

Fascinating stuff.

PS, it's known as warfare. 9/11, the response to it, the response to the response, the forthcoming response to the response to the response. It's called warfare. Terrorism is a euphemism.

> Part of the behavior is a colorful & stylized "warfare" where few get seriously injured.

Kind of like the Cold War?

I guess you can make that analogy. Anthropology kind of loses some of its bite when you get into nations, perhaps also what we call religions. There is certainly a element of the same game dynamics at play, testing for weakness and the mutual deterrence of war itself. Everyone bleeds in wartime.

The outcomes though are different. Territorial gains, death counts, the percentage of lives "traditionally" ended by violence in a culture. Different outcomes breed different games.

Tangentially, this perspective tends to lead to a certain perspective on people. Things like religion are smiler to things like nationality. They're all Myths.

The community that won included a famous male chimp called Frodo, who went on to become extremely aggressive - he killed a human baby, attacked Jane Goodall and also cartoonist Gary Larson ...


"Frodo died in 2013 from an infected bite wound to his groin."


If you're interested in learning a little more about Jane Goodall (and having a lot of laughs in the process), TankRiot recently did an episode [1] about her early work as well as her current activism.

[1] http://www.tankriot.com/2014/149/

Don't just laugh, you can actually do something! She is 80 years old and still very active, traveling and speaking through the world 350 days per year. If you want to support Jane Goodall's Institute, you can donate here:


"Your gift will help the Jane Goodall Institute:

Fight the illegal bushmeat trade and wildlife poaching, a threat so severe it could lead to the loss of several critical species including chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants;

Provide a safe haven for orphaned and injured chimpanzees at Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of the Congo;

Restore African habitat through balanced, sustainable, community programs which involve local citizens in replanting forests and developing sustainable livelihoods;

Educate and empower young people through Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots program. "

I should clarify ... I wasn't laughing at Jane Goodall but rather at the delivery (and side-bar content) of the TankRiot crew.

Yes, and everybody can actually do more than just laugh. That's what I wanted to bring to everybody's attention.

Skip to 35 minutes.

Edit: Skip to 84 minutes.


Extract about the war from Godall's book.

The big question that I'm left with after reading this article is: are there particular factors that played a role in causing this war, or does this kind of thing just 'randomly' happen.

Does anyone know if this has been researched to any degree, perhaps with other groups of chimpanzees or entirely different species? I imagine that observing these dynamics in a more 'primitive' creature could be enlightening to us...

There has been considerable subsequent research. The war like behaviour appears common in Chimps but happens much less in Bonobos which are genetically very similar to Chimps. There's a NYT article here:


If I remember correctly (been a while since I studied this stuff), the line leading to homo sapiens diverged before the Chimpanzee/Bonobo divergence. I've read a few things to the effect that humans show both chimp-like and bonobo-like solutions to conflict depending on the context.

There was an interesting book about some of it, Demonic Males (http://www.amazon.com/Demonic-Males-Origins-Human-Violence/d...). It might be a bit dated now (1997).

Awesome! Thanks for the input.

I think it just comes doen to natural selection. In an environemnt with limited resources necessary for survival, particularly food which approximately equates to territory, competition for those resources is competition for survival. This will select positively for the capacity to be aggressive. (Though there are of course other factiors that select for the capacity to be caring and generous.)

The issue then is that once nature has selected individuals capable of aggression, there' no guarantee that agression will allways and only ever manifest in situations directly related to personal survival.

So why does this apply to chimps but not bonobos? Are bonobos in areas with less limited resources or naturally different territorial divisions? The argument seems a bit lacking without understanding the distinction (and I know very little about these areas).

From Wikiepdia:

>It has been hypothesized that bonobos are able to live a more peaceful lifestyle in part because of an abundance of nutritious vegetation in their natural habitat, allowing them to travel and forage in large parties.

So I suppose take away the need for competion for resources and the selective pressure for aggression reduces or dissapears.

I seem to remember the trauma inherent in the environment being identified as a causal factor. I can't remember the details now, but I think some of the individual chimps involved has suffered some childhood trauma due to the recent civil war.

Can anyone else remember reading anything similar? If I'm not mis-remembering, this is another similarity between humans and chimps.

Chimps seem to exhibit very human characteristics. ;-)

That statement only makes sense if you have the (incorrect) assumption that these characteristics are "human". They are animal, more specifically predator/mammal characteristics. Humans are not distinct, special or separate. Homo Sapien Sapien are nothing more than one end of a gradient of "intelligence", "sentience", etc.


And surely stating the opposite would equally be anti-war propaganda to confirm that war is only innate in humans'

Either statement has similarities with this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalistic_fallacy

except that in this case the implication is one of inevitability rather than 'goodness'.

The correct response in either case would be to clarify ones claims, make clear falsifiable claims and avoid overly broad conclusions.

It's not a moral judgement, rather an observation of a common trait.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact