Political Animals and Anthropological Brains

Today’s New York Times has an article “Political Animals (Yes, Animals),” which recounts the many lines of research on the politics of animal life.  Rhesus monkeys, dolphins, wolves and yes, even humans make their appearance in the article.  Research has increasingly shown that these “nonhuman animals behave like textbook politicians.  In these “highly gregarious and relatively brainy species,” individuals “engage in extraordinarily sophisticated forms of politicking, often across large and far-flung social networks.” 

Wherever animals must pool their talents and numbers into cohesive social groups, scientists said, the better to protect against predators, defend or enlarge choice real estate or acquire mates, the stage will be set for the appearance of political skills — the ability to please and placate, manipulate and intimidate, trade favors and scratch backs or, better yet, pluck those backs free of botflies and ticks. Over time, the demands of a social animal’s social life may come to swamp all other selective pressures in the environment, possibly serving as the dominant spur for the evolution of ever-bigger vote-tracking brains.

As Dario Maestripieri explains, “The paradox of a highly social species like rhesus monkeys and humans is that our complex sociality is the reason for our success, but it’s also the source of our greatest troubles. Throughout human history, you see that the worst problems for people almost always come from other people, and it’s the same for the monkeys. You can put them anywhere, but their main problem is always going to be other rhesus monkeys.”

This line of research has direct implications for how to conceive neuroanthropology.  The importance of sociopolitical intelligence places the actualities of brain evolution against the sort of “rational man” and the “man the hunter” models that I have critiqued elsewhere on this blog (Why We Love, Steven Pinker, On Stress-Part Two).  In particular, if sociopolitics is part of daily life for big brained, social species, then our brains should pay quite a bit of attention to that.  However, models of brain evolution and function generally start with an overlay of neuroscience and innate psychology—memory, motor function, visual systems—without placing brain evolution into a phylogenetic and ecological perspective.  The evolution of brain function, in other words, might be organized at higher levels than the ones typically considered by cognitive neuroscience. 

I also was struck by the discussion of power in the article: “Individuals don’t fight for food, space or resources,” Dr. Maestripieri explained. “They fight for power.” With power and status, he added, “they’ll have control over everything else.” 

However, the article falls back on exclusively evolutionary explanations, such as “they try to gain maximal benefits at minimal cost, and that’s a strategy that seems to work.” 

Here the work on elephants proves particularly interesting.  Elephants are organized in matriarchies, with core groups of around 10 elephants led by the eldest female.  In general, female elephants will cultivate “robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other elephants, a task made easier by their power to communicate infrasonically across miles of savanna floor.”  As the article summarizes: 

“They’re constantly making decisions, debating among themselves, over food, water and security,” Dr. Wittemyer said. “You can see it in the field. You can hear them vocally disagree.” Typically, the matriarch has the final say, and the others abide by her decision. If a faction disagrees strongly enough and wants to try a different approach, “the group will split up and meet back again later,” said Dr. Wittemyer.

Age has its privileges, he said, and the older females, even if they are not the biggest, will often get the best spots to sleep and the best food to eat. But it also has its responsibilities, and a matriarch is often the one to lead the charge in the face of conflicts with other elephants or predatory threats, sometimes to lethal effect.

Here a very different sort of “evolutionary psychology” emerges—group decision making, leadership and responsibility, factional affiliation, social communication strategies. These sorts of considerations, while still at some theoretical distance, nonetheless are a lot closer to how “power” is considered in social anthropology.  What would Foucault say about the elephants?

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