Can’t Live with Them, Can’t Live without Them

May 30, 2013

In a struggle for control of the arm rest, a sweaty woman with a Harlequin romance novel elbows me in the rib cage. The drink cart pushes past me in the aisle, crushing my left ankle as it makes its way to first class. A wail erupts from the seat in front of me and almost immediately the song of several screaming children booms down the aisle. I sit back and decide that airplanes embody the popular notion that hell is, in fact, other people. Seventeen hours, one angry stewardess, and six ankle-crushings later, Kaitlin and I are finally at Gombe. Was it worth it? Absolutely. You see, approximately 48 hours after my gut took a hearty blow from the woman with a zest for romance, I saw a chimpanzee in the wild for the first time. This was a life-changing experience, and a pleasant reminder that for the next two months, I get to trade in my human counterparts for a much preferred primate.

Seeing the chimps also reminds me that being frustrated with one’s own species is just a part of life. In fact, it’s almost certain that chimpanzees feel the many of the same frustrations in dealing with their own social partners. Although I’m sure a chimp has never argued with a stewardess about the appropriate time to use the restroom, they do experience stress from navigating the complexities of group living. Just like humans, chimps need to keep track of their daily interactions with friends and even competitors. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at the relentless brown-noser in your office who consistently sucks up to the boss in order to get ahead, you’ll be happy to know that this type of other-regarding behavior is probably very ancient. Only hours ago I watched as a young male, Eriki, refused to play with another youngster in favor of grooming Ferdinand, the alpha male. Deciding that one relationship is more important or beneficial than another plays an integral role in both human and chimpanzee societies; understanding that this behavior is not uniquely human is a crucial component to the reconstruction of human origins. It can be deduced that somewhere in our past, early hominins recognized that paying attention to social dynamics could have major payoffs. So look out, because if your other coworkers don’t intervene, that office yes-man could end up with a promotion.

As for Eriki, I will be keeping an eye on him. Because males need to cooperate to hunt and defend home ranges, they seem to be particularly invested in maintaining social relationships. Young Eriki probably sees Gombe as his own personal airplane: his actions are dictated to some degree by those around him. As he grows, he will learn who to befriend and who to fight, valuable tidbits of knowledge that all successful primates go on to possess. After all, there’s always someone who wants to steal your arm rest.

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