Shakespearean Chimpanzees: Love, Power, and Tragedy in Chimp Society

Written by Thomson Safaris
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Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, and they share upwards of 99% of our DNA. It only stands to reason that we can see glimpses of ourselves in their behaviors, their societies…and their intrigues.

Chimpanzee society is strongly hierarchical, with an alpha male heading up a community full of multiple shifting mini-factions. Alphas tend to be between 20-26 years of age, and physically capable of dominating their rivals, but sometimes, they rise through the ranks not through force, but through scheming. Careful selection of allies, manipulation of both friends and enemies, and political maneuvering allow the most Machiavellian chimps to reach the pinnacle of power in their groups; every male chimp is dominant over every female, but only the alpha can expect submission from every male, too.

But just because they’re subjugated in their societies, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of Lady Macbeths among chimpanzee females. More complex than male hierarchy, female hierarchy depends on a mix of strategic friendships, inherited position, and sexual desirability. Though they may not overtly lead, females may choose to withhold themselves from certain males—even the alpha–which can prove surprisingly effective as a negotiating tool. They’ve even been known to band together and oust an alpha male of whom they didn’t approve.

Of course the tensions between power and sex lead, predictably, to plenty of primal (or should we say primate?) dramas.

Tyrannical alphas might choose to keep the favors of all the finest females only for themselves, preventing any rival males from mating.

This might lead males to attempt to steal away with their preferred lovers, secreting them out of the community for “consortship mating,” where the male and female remain isolated for several weeks, allowing even a low-ranking male the chance to mate with a female he otherwise wouldn’t have access to. The strategy is often effective, though whether that’s due more to underlying threads of star-crossed love or to inevitable simian Stockholm syndrome isn’t entirely clear.

Other females, unwilling to go through with a forced encounter with a powerful, but unloved, leader, might sneak off to another, rival community, in order to pursue a brief love-match.

But these are dangerous games to play; male chimpanzees (perhaps gripped in a vise of jealousy) have been known to murder any infants they can’t be absolutely certain are their own. This can allow the chimp to mate with a desirable female—a female whose infant has just died may be ready to mate again sooner than she would otherwise—or simply promote a preferred female within the group (if the alpha’s favorite is the only female producing offspring that live to adulthood, she, and her offspring, will have more power within the community). Though it’s rarer, female chimpanzees have also been known to commit infanticide. Is it to vault themselves to power? Or have they just…snapped? (The world may never know…or at least, it doesn’t yet!)

All in all, it’s a sordid, twisted tale of cunning and violence, love and betrayal, plotting and power: really, what could be more human than that?