I had a long and wandering conversation with a friend yesterday. As a context, I watched the Netflix show “Chimp Empire”, about chimpanzee society and social structures, and the “inner lives” of chimpanzees, and she has watched a few episodes now also, and we were discussing how this relates to human behavior now.
So… dominance displays. Let’s oversimplify and say that every so often the alpha male goes rampaging through the forest throwing around heavy logs and bending vines and knocking stuff over. Why? Well… basically to prove he’s a bad___. In chimpanzee world, there WILL be conflict with neighboring groups of chimpanzees, and groups of chimpanzees ALWAYS resolve that either by conflict, or the threat of conflict, and either by dominating in actual physical battle, or scaring the other group away with the perception they’d get their butt kicked if they DID engage in battle.
During a dominance display by the alpha, other members of the group will often hoot repeatedly. To me it seems like they’re saying “There goes Jackson again, proving he can kick butt. Yeah, I think he’s the guy we want to lead us into our next battle with the Western troop.” Or maybe they’re saying “We need some law and order around here, everybody and their different agendas having equal say is a hot mess, we need a common agenda, and for better or worse, that guy rampaging around seems like he’s got the strongest personality, and in between his rampages, he’s a decent fellow, so let’s get behind him and follow his lead.”
We were also talking about HUMAN revolutions, and the chimpanzee equivalent of human behavior during revolutions. And we were also talking about the tendency roughly a third of the way through what might become a revolution… where humans have a tendency to break things, and set them on fire, and generally turn everything upside down. The masses. The people. Mayhem.
I’ve written before about “the Loki effect” actually being a dynamic that can get very solidly stuck things unstuck, at a primal level… and when stuff gets really wonky we tend to revert to some more primal way of doing things.
Well… what if rioting and mayhem are effectively a GROUP dominance display? If just about everybody in the group is throwing logs around, and knocking stuff over… that looks and smells a LOT like a “Loki” situation. Let me throw out a scenario: Alpha males often have a pretty heavy “physical dominance” component of their control of a group, and a lot of the time that dominance is… shall we say “not too oppressive”… and the group accepts it as the way to keep “law and order”… and life goes on, day after day. So let’s say there comes a time when FOR SOME REASON the current “wannabe dominating” alpha’s leadership isn’t as effective as it once was… or he’s just getting old, and no longer the best battle leader… and the group effectively starts “realigning their alliances” toward other alternative alphas… who that might end up being is probably not clear, and not everybody’s mind shifts at the same time… but the old alpha is still in charge, and feels the group sentiment shifting against him. There’s a phrase: “Power usually doesn’t give up power voluntarily.” (Giving up power voluntarily as the result of an election is supposed to be a big part of our American secret sauce, our way to bust out of all the chimp drama… but I digress.) Effectively, as the “probably on his way out alpha” starts to feel group sentiment shifting against him… chimpanzees starting to rebel against his authority and dominance… what’s he going to do? There’s a DECENT chance he STEPS UP his dominance. There’s a chance he somewhat shifts from SHOWY displays of dominance to actual physical domination. There’s a chance the group starts feeling “oppressed” “for real”. There’s a chance the group individually, then “as a group” starts taking the “Shoot me again, I ain’t dead yet.” approach to this oppression and continues to rebel against his authority (shout out to Metallica lyrics, which I think boil down this dynamic into a nice catchy phrase). And individual members of the group are rampaging around way more frequently, and they’re doing the “ritualized simulated violence” that is normally reserved for the ongoing alpha.
If the chimpanzee troop is effectively “rioting”… and the alpha can’t stop it… it’s probably pretty clear to the alpha he has lost control… and it’s probably pretty clear to the group it’s time to shift alliances and realign behind a new leader NOW… effectively it’s like an election… but instead of one chimpanzee, one vote, through a formal and trackable process, there’s just an active shifting of alliances, probably somewhat open, and somewhat covert… with some drama… and then effectively after a period of wrestling with it, during which wrestling, if the “leading candidate” shows himself not capable of gathering a coalition, then there’s maybe a second round, now maybe multiple new candidates “enter the race”… then more wrestling… but eventually the troop wants to settle on a new leader. And now THAT GUY starts rampaging around the forest on some periodic basis reminding everybody why they picked him.
So after yesterday my friend and I came up with this theory… this morning I asked ChatGPT if chimpanzees ever do the equivalent of rioting WITHIN one group, and IF yes, is that sometimes lined up with shifting alliances around changing of the alpha, and the pretend and real dominance that comes with it… and ChatGPT said yes. Now… I suppose my next step is to reach out to the group that’s probably STILL doing ongoing study of that same cluster of chimpanzee societies, and get a deeper cut of it.
But the theory I’m working with… is that rioting is effectively “the people’s way” of “showing the power structure” that “things are out of control, and we think something needs to be done”.
In a modern world, people are no longer throwing around logs, and no longer bending vines. They sometimes destroy businesses that their neighbors took a lifetime to build, and sometimes destroying the very institutions and structures meant to keep them safe. And sometimes they’re destroying what they see as the “symbol of oppression”.
At this point we could all digress into conservative or liberal talking points… “See, CONSERVATIVE ideas are right!” “No, that’s absolutely wrong, this proves LIBERAL ideas are right!”
As I look at the arguments for this or that viewpoint… I’m seeing value in BOTH conservative and liberal ideas. I’m seeing that SOME WAY, SOMEHOW, the community needs to feel like things are going to be okay tomorrow… and if there’s some critical mass of sense things might be bad tomorrow, there’s some tendency for things to get wonky. Sometimes REALLY wonky.
In the chimpanzee world, that upheaval is part of the process for shaking apart the old order, and loosening old assumptions about what driving forces are, to allow for new alignments, and new ideas.
But when what’s being thrown around is rotting logs… well… it’s kind of a low stakes riot. It’s okay. It will be okay. It will sort itself out.
But if I look at it from the standpoint of 2024 America, and the 2024 world… and if we fold in the idea of “what made America great”… let me make the case that in 1789 we started using a system of one chimpanzee, one vote, and we document it, and count the results without shenanigans, as well as we can, then we live with the results for some set period of time, then we choose again in the same organized way, and live with the results AGAIN. Yes, this actually is better than kings, and queens, and guillotines. IF we can actually use this VOTING stuff to organize and make decisions.
If the results of our voting, and agreements, and shifting alliances through this formalized “democracy” stuff ends up a hot mess… I’d assert there’s some “driving force” to reassert the old Hobbesian kings and queens and guillotines model. Deep down, we know how that works.
Okay… so on some level “that seems like a good idea”, to some people. In a way, alliances START to shift.
AND… let’s stop and think for a second.
We’d be throwing away what made America great.
And the mix of kings and queens and guillotines and nuclear weapons, and the dramatically increased role of ego in that milieu: let’s just say humanity wouldn’t last long.
I’m tired of the battles between the right and the left.
The right and the left are willing to destroy what made America great.
For their own righteous and petty ideology war.
And… I know liberals and conservatives, conservatives and liberals who are good people. Wonderful people. The people you’d want to trust your life to when things get wonky in the jungle. And the LIVES THEY ACTUALLY LIVE, separate from their ideology, are pretty darn close to the same. They do a lot of the same things, for a lot of the same reasons. The divide is just… pretend. Posturing. INTENSE posturing. But still all just make believe.
So this ideology war that’s kind of tearing our house down… isn’t real.
Here’s a thought?
Wait, I should be more assertive.
We need to redesign democracy so the goal is to work stuff out. And the goal is not to cram our “wing” ideology down the whole group’s throat.
And if we do that, it should be in a Ben Franklin / John Adams / Alexander Hamilton / James Madison kind of way. Where real, practical, workable plans… that factor in human nature… that factor in chimpanzee nature… that treat human beings like they REALLY are… we’re all a hot mess… and we all still have the capacity to get together and agree how we want things to be… and then we can, more or less, do what works, and what keeps everybody REASONABLY happy.
And then, after some random six year period, of living our lives, within some workable group system of deciding an agenda, and executing it… and still living OUR OWN lives with our own freedom separate from the group’s agenda… without excessive conflict at those two levels… we can look back and say… wow… this is working out pretty good. Life is good.
And it took an assertive and intentional approach for the group to work things out, to reconcile differences, to allow people to be people, and to give people as much freedom as possible, but also build structures that help everybody just live their lives, and laws that prevent (or sometimes punish) chaos and jerkness.
The tendency right now is for the left and right to want to hijack this conversation into their talking points… I understand… I’ve reviewed your logic, and see where you’re coming from… but effing stop it. We, as the entire group, are going to sort this out in a way that works for EVERYBODY. And that doesn’t look like domination by your ideology.
Right now, we’re tribal about our ideology.
That doesn’t work. That’s the worst of chimpanzee politics.
What made America great was transcending this. With pretty darn explicit and repeated spelling out of the idea that “faction” and “party” were damaging to American democracy and prosperity, and one of the most imporant things to prevent.
Well… it’s time for us to start re-aligning behind the idea that “right wing vs. left wing” isn’t really working for us. Too chimpanzee.
Let’s find again what made America great. And it ain’t that.