Are we good or evil? The question has haunted philosophers for millennia. If you look at the behavior of our closest relatives, the answer is likely a mix of both.

We share more than 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees and bonobos. So we’ve inherited quite contrasting genetic instincts in how to gain power and how to treat outsiders.

When alpha male chimpanzees from two different groups collide they usually fight. Chimps are extremely aggressive and xenophobic. But the exact opposite occurs in bonobos, who are usually led by alpha females with a bent towards cooperation. When groups of bonobos intersect they usually hang out, groom each other and have sex.

In other words, the fluctuation between war and peace in human societies may be rooted in our genetic lineage.

For more than four decades, primatologist Frans de Waal has studied the parallels between primate and human behavior. He’s written best-selling books like Chimpanzee Politics, which analyzes how chimpanzees hobnob and conspire their way to the top, not unlike human politicians. De Waal’s latest books are Our Inner Ape, and The Age of Empathy. 

De Waal spoke recently at TEDMED in Palm Springs. KQED science reporter Lesley McClurg caught up with him to find out what apes can teach us about leadership.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lesley McClurg: What’s the definition of an alpha male?

Frans de Waal: The term alpha male goes back to the ’40s and ’50s, in wolf research, to describe the highest-ranking male or the highest-ranking female.

There’s a very simplistic view of an alpha male in today’s literature, and I object to that. Today an alpha male is usually thought to be strong, bullying and intimidating. The term actually became popular after my book Chimpanzee Politics. Since then they used it in Washington D.C., but I don’t agree with the way they use it.

McClurg: What are the accurate attributes of an alpha male?

De Waal: I divide them in sort of two categories. One are the bullies, and that’s the minority and they usually don’t last very long. They last a couple of years and then they are ousted, or killed sometimes, or kicked out of the group. The other category has leadership capacities. They’re not just bullies, they break up fights, keep the peace in the group and defend the underdog. In the same way that humans like the pope, or the queen, or the president visit earthquakes and hurricanes to provide comfort.

TEDMED will post De Waal’s most recent talk later this year. Here is his previous TED talk.

McClurg: Given that distinction between an alpha male and a bully, what do you see playing out in our current political situation?

De Waal: I am struck by the fact that our current president is so often called an alpha male — which started in the elections. People were boasting about what an alpha male he was. I’m still waiting to see the leadership capacities that I so much value in chimpanzees.

The rise to the top can be done with intimidation and bluffing, but what happens after that when they are in the top position, they sometimes become very cocky. They think they can do anything. The group usually puts an end to that.

McClurg: You’ve written that a successful alpha male is one who shows empathy and can build alliances. How does that play out in chimpanzees?

De Waal: Alliances are always necessary. It’s very unusual that a male completely rises to the top on his own. He needs to have a few buddies and female support. Then you need keep the ones who brought you to power, happy.

On empathy — I call the chimpanzee males at the top, the Consolers-in-Chief. This consolation behavior that males show is actually very unique because females usually do much more of it than males. Females are more empathetic in all mammals. Males who are very good at that are very much valued by the community.

Three chimpanzees appear to have a meeting.

McClurg: Is there anything chimpanzees or bonobos can tell us about our desire to vote for the alpha male? And, how do you think that desire to vote for an alpha male played out in the most recent election?

De Waal: It was clear that Donald J. Trump, who had defeated many male candidates just by being tall and lowering his voice and insulting them in their faces, didn’t know what to do with Clinton. He much preferred attacking Obama and Clinton’s husband, which in fact he did right before the second debate by dragging up  some sex accusations. Trump loomed large behind Clinton but also knew that his usual tactics would not work against a woman.

This dynamic was very interesting, because also among chimpanzees, the males know how to handle each other, which is all bluff and vigor, but usually cannot fight a female the same way as a male. After all their competition is all about females, so harming them, or even killing them, is one of the worst things they can do. Attacks on females also may trigger defensive responses. In human politics, this might apply even more.

McClurg: What have you learned from watching chimps and bonobos all these years that would be a good lesson for humans?

De Waal: I think what I’ve learned is that a lot of things that we think are uniquely human are not. We tend to exaggerate these things — that morality and culture are uniquely human. Now we know from primate studies that we are not inventing so much.

We have a primate psychology and that has implications. It’s not so much practical implications. People sometimes ask me how do we resolve the Palestinian conflict if it’s based on chimpanzee behavior. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but we do learn that the way we look at our own species is actually erroneous.


The Difference Between a Bully and a True Alpha Male 13 November,2017Lesley McClurg


Lesley McClurg

Lesley McClurg reports for KQED Science primarily on medical and mental health with a sprinkling of stories about space, environmental toxins and food.

If there’s a natural disaster brewing Lesley can usually be found right in the midst of a catastrophe. She’s reported on disastrous floods, fires, droughts and earthquakes.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and PBS. She is an Edward R. Murrow and Emmy award winning journalist. The Society of Environmental Journalists recognized her beat coverage of California’s historic drought.

Before joining KQED in 2016, she reported for Capital Public Radio, Colorado Public Radio, KUOW and KCTS in Seattle.

You can find her on Twitter at @lesleywmcclurg.

You can find her KQED medical science stories, her environment stories, and general news stories.

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