[Marxism] A debate over Chimpanzee violence

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 18 06:53:54 MDT 2014

(This article cites Brian Ferguson, an anthropologist I have relied on 
heavily in articles against sociobiology. His articles can be read here: 

NY Times, Sept. 18 2014
Lethal Violence in Chimps Occurs Naturally, Study Suggests

Are chimpanzees naturally violent to one another, or has the intrusion 
of humans into their environment made them aggressive?

A study published Wednesday in Nature is setting off a new round of 
debate on the issue.

The study’s authors argue that a review of all known cases of when 
chimpanzees or bonobos in Africa killed members of their own species 
shows that violence is a natural part of chimpanzee behavior and not a 
result of actions by humans that push chimpanzee aggression to lethal 
attacks. The researchers say their analysis supports the idea that 
warlike violence in chimpanzees is a natural behavior that evolved 
because it could provide more resources or territory to the killers, at 
little risk.

But critics say the data shows no such thing, largely because the 
measures of human impact on chimpanzees are inadequate.

While the study is about chimpanzees, it is also the latest salvo in a 
long argument about the nature of violence in people.

In studying chimpanzee violence, “we’re trying to make inferences about 
human evolution,” said Michael L. Wilson, an anthropologist at the 
University of Minnesota and a study organizer.

There is no disagreement about whether chimpanzees kill one another, or 
about some of the claims that Dr. Wilson and his 29 co-authors make.

The argument is about why chimpanzees kill. Dr. Wilson and the other 
authors, who contributed data on killings from groups at their study 
sites, say the evidence shows no connection between human impact on the 
chimpanzee sites and the number of killings.

He said the Ngogo group of chimpanzees in Uganda “turned out to be the 
most violent group of chimpanzees there is,” even though the site was 
little disturbed by humans.

They have a pristine habitat, he said, and “they go around and kill 
their neighbors.”


Titan, an adult male from one of the  communities included in a new 
study about violence among chimpanzees and bonobos. Credit Ian Gilby
Robert Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University who supports 
the idea that human actions put pressure on chimpanzee societies that 
results in killings, was dismissive of the paper. “The statistics don’t 
tell me anything,” he said. “They haven’t established lack of human 

Brian Ferguson, an anthropologist at Rutgers University who has written 
extensively on human warfare and is working on a book about chimpanzee 
and human violence, also argued that the measures of human impact were 
questionable. The study considered whether chimpanzees were fed by 
people, the size of their range and the disturbance of their habitat. 
But, Dr. Ferguson said, impact “can’t be assessed by simple factors.”

“I’m arguing for the opposite of the method that’s being used here,” he 
said, adding that a detailed historical analysis was needed for each site.

Behind the discussion of violence among chimpanzees is a long-running 
dispute over whether chimpanzee behavior offers insights about human 

Richard Wrangham of Harvard, the senior author of the new paper and Dr. 
Wilson’s onetime doctoral adviser, is the co-author of a 1996 book, 
“Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence.” Although the 
issue is not mentioned in this paper, he argues that chimpanzee behavior 
“is a reasonable start for thinking about primitive warfare in 
small-scale societies.” But, he added, “I certainly wouldn’t want to say 
that chimps have anything much to say directly about what’s going on in 

Dr. Sussman, who is skeptical of drawing connections between chimpanzee 
and human violence, said, “War has nothing to do with what chimpanzees do.”

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