Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

From Chimpanzee Lethal Raids to Operation Iraqi Freedom

with 3 comments

Are we just murderous monkeys?

I was reading a fine blog and it alerted me to an interesting article in Media Matters about the recently released bi-partisan report on Iraq. The article identifies six findings in the report that the mainstream media has largely ignored:

  1. The Pentagon is under-reporting the violence in Iraq.
  2. US Intelligence knows very little about the insurgency and militias in Iraq.
  3. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating so badly that troops may have to be shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan.
  4. There is still a critical lack of Arabic speakers in both the civilian and military missions in Iraq.
  5. The military is seriously considering extending Army and National Guard reserve deployments in Iraq.
  6. Spending on the Iraq war is getting little scrutiny.

The original article is here. Any and all of these points are meat for extended discussion, but it’s the overall pattern of media avoidance that I find interesting. The conspiracists would make hay of this media bias, claiming this is deliberately done so that Americans do not realized how badly our quest for oil is going. And in some cases, I’m sure there’s an element of truth to that. However, I suspect this is aided and abetted by something I call the “crusader mindset.” What do I mean by the crusader mindset?

I mean that there seems to be an innate tendency for people to think that their army off in foreign lands is doing the right thing, and that all is going well with them. And I think this can be seen throughout human history, leading all the way back to chimpanzee “lethal raids.” Chimps are our closest relatives on this here planet, with the possible exception of Bigfoot and his yet undiscovered ilk. Chimps (and also spider monkeys) engage in a behaviour called “lethal raiding.” I will explain more about lethal raids in order to hopefully tie this speculation of mine all together.

What is a lethal raid? Well, chimps live in tribal groups. Each tribe has a territory. Usually when chimps move about, they are very noisy, travel in the trees, and stay in their own territory. (Think teenagers, but without the iPods.) However, once and awhile for some reason the male chimps in a tribal group will engage in a lethal raid. All of the males in the group, even ones that normally despise and avoid each other, will get chummy and groom each other. Then they will set off into the woods single file, on the ground, and in complete eerie silence. This behaviour is called the “border patrol” by paleontologists, because of its obvious similarity to human soldiers. Into another chimp group’s territory marches the border patrol…

What happens when a border patrol meets “enemy” chimps? If the groups are fairly evenly matched…things are said, feces are thrown, and a great deal of noise and chest pounding occurs. (An obvious similarity to certain organized sporting activities hardly needs mention.) Eventually one group or another will slip away and that’s that. However, should the chimp border patrol run across a small number of enemy males, then we see the lethal raid. Simply put, the larger group of chimps rips the enemy males to pieces, sometimes “persuading” the females of the males they have killed to join their group. What, you thought only humans committed war crimes?

Is this murderous chimp behaviour an analog for human warfare? It’s certainly hard not to see the similarities. Especially when one considers that the raiding chimps often steal territory and resources from the chimps they attacked, sometimes even “conquering” adjoining groups. This behaviour is especially similar to how human hunting and gathering societies conduct warfare, in fact for all practical purposes, it is identical. Not all chimps engage in this behaviour, nor do all human societies engage in warfare. So how relevant the chimp and human behaviours are to each other is debatable, this site gives a decent overview of the topic.

Even if the case linking the two is weak, a strong case can be made that this at least indicates that there is something natural in the behaviour, and by natural, I mean that in most cases the behaviour must be rewarding and beneficial to the family of chimps or tribe of humans. Otherwise it would be far less common, or have gone extinct. Animals cannot waste much time and energy on things that aren’t productive in the long run, we certainly see little if any wasteful behaviour in the wild.

And to me it’s not hard to see a similarity between lethal raids and many of history’s wars. The crusades are an especially egregious example, but the Roman conquests and Alexander the Great come to mind. In all of these cases large groups of organized war making men marched into another people’s territories and killed/enslaved their males and stole their women and land and gold. And in each of these cases the war had a great deal of popular support, no matter how weak the war’s rationale. Alexander for example attacked Persia to get revenge for Xerxe’s invasion of Greece…one hundred years earlier! I’m pretty sure there must have been people then who thought this was absurd, everyone in Persia for starters.

Today’s invasion of Iraq is just a lethal raid on a grand scale. This is a behaviour that has been with us since before the beginning, and to me it’s easy to see in that context why so many people support the troops and support the war. We have been bred for it. There is a powerful inborn tendency to want to think that the chimps on the border patrol (so to speak) are doing well, we all want our fathers and brothers and sisters to return home safely when they venture into the woods.

On the other hand, saying that humans invade other countries and blow them up because we’re just following our natural apelike tendencies isn’t very helpful. On some days though, sure is satisfying.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is central to illustrating the post and it is not being used for profit. )

Written by unitedcats

December 10, 2006 at 10:24 am

3 Responses

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  1. Fascinating. In truth, it’s getting harder for leaders of democratic countries to sustain support for a war.

    The kind of raid you’re describing might be successful: quickly in, quickly out, spread the booty around. But wars that drag on as local boys come home in boxes … that turns people off big time.

    Bush would never have sustained support for the Iraq misadventure as long as he did, if he hadn’t acted under cover of 9/11. But even that highly emotive pretext is failing him now.


    December 11, 2006 at 11:24 am

  2. […] are inherently violent? No. At least not any more violent than anyone else. There’s some violent chimpanzee in all of us.The point here is that having a big standing army and a good guy/bad guy foreign […]

  3. Hello
    I’m looking for some good discussions related to “lethal raiding” by chimps. Man’s behavior, including my own, seems to be related to this. I do not agree that chimps murder because they are “protecting” their territory. Chimps and us murder because it causes our “pleasure center” neurons in the brain to fire off!

    War, revenge, personal slights, territory, etc. are only “excuses” to murder and torture. We will never get a handle on this until we recognize our tendancy for violence and murder is pleasure related. Ghandi instinctively understood this and he was the example that humans MUST follow if we are to advance any further.

    Let me clarify further. Look at chimps when they display to another large group! Noisey, grabbing branches, threatening. They are getting off on it. Now look at videos of riots. No difference in behaviors.

    Look at chimp lethal raiding behavior when they catch a single victim. The group could easily dispatch their victim within seconds. They do not, rather they all take turns and murder their victim SLOWLY. They are getting off on it and wouldn’t derive the pleasure of the moment if the victim was dead. Now look at a man torturing another man. No difference.

    If you accept that we murder and become violent because it fires up the pleasure center in our brain then many unexplained human behaviours are better understood. This explains and simplifies:

    drug cartels murders
    beheadings by extremists
    domestic violence
    suicide bombings
    killing fields
    Chicago youth murders
    domestic gang violence
    serial killers
    the extinction of Neanderthals is because us Homo Sapiens wiped them out

    To this point the experts say that chimp “lethal raiding” is all about protecting their territory. I say that chimps patrol the “edges” of their territory because it is the safest, most likely place to find a victim. Murder has little to do with territory. Wars have little to do with territory. Wars have everything to do with providing us with the opportunity of brain pleasure stimulated by violence and murder for murders own sake.

    I thank the individuals who spent so many years studying and observing our cousins the chimps. Our we advanced enough to use this information in a meaningful way? The bright light to me is that Bonobos, Orangutans and Gorillas don’t use lethal raiding so there might be a chance for us yet?


    December 10, 2009 at 3:38 pm

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