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Will you please start acting like an animal!


Steve and Andy aren’t happy with each other. Steve stole Andy’s lunch, a delicious fruit platter piled high with pineapples, mango, and ripe bananas. Understandably, this made Andy angry - he was looking forward to this exotically sumptuous banquet. Steve doesn’t feel too guilty though, he was already furious with Andy, for Andy had only that morning performed a salacious dance for Lola’s benefit, Lola being the female that Steve has his eye on of course, and sadly for Steve, she seemed to enjoy it. As fists are raised towards the canopy and panted barks ring through the forest, violence is all but certain. Chimpanzees, for that, is what Steve and Andy are, have been known to aggressively maim, kill and even cannibalise their brethren when conflict arises. This is bad news for Andy, the smaller of the chimps who I’m sure does not want to be eaten by his family. As the conflict escalates and violent hoots give way to physical posturing, the troop is seconds away from wild and savage conflict. Only, instead of a violent altercation, something remarkable happens. Winston, a large chimpanzee of high rank in the social hierarchy, knuckle-walks in between the two would-be combatants, seemingly in an attempt to de-escalate the conflict. With a low panted grunt,  a glance from chimp to chimp to chimp Winston’s actions result in both Andy and Steve slinking away, back to join the troop. Disaster averted, conflict managed.

Though this story is a work of fiction, alas Steve, Andy, Lola and Winston are just figments of my imagination, the policing, mediation and arbitration of conflicts by impartial third parties is well documented in chimpanzee troops. Lest we thought that these concepts were strictly human inventions, I came across the article ‘Impartial Third-Party Interventions in Captive Chimpanzees: A Reflection of Community Concern (Von Rohr et al, 2012). Detailed within the article is a fascinating study of 11 chimpanzees across four groups where they witnessed third parties, not previously involved in conflict (conflicts typically concerned food or cross-sex relationships), intervene or ‘police’ conflicts by threatening the parties, standing in the middle of arguing groups or physically running through the aggressors to separate them. These tactics are surprisingly effective with a success rate in ending conflict of 89.96%, a number that any mediation service in the world would gladly shout about.

The authors found that intervention was most likely in conflicts that had the potential to escalate due to aggressive behaviour and upset the social dynamics, and with more social instability came more conflict and need for intervention. Interestingly, almost all of the interveners were high ranking males. It’s a fascinating read and I suggest, if you have time, to read the original article. Perhaps, like me, you will be shocked how much of the chimpanzees behaviour reflects our own conflict stories.

Confession time! Reading this article has sent me down a rabbit hole of investigating conflict management and relationships in the animal kingdom. I understand that I'm no David Attenbourgh, but I’ve spent most of my Sunday googling things like:

  • Question: “Do dolphins argue?’

Answer: Yes. Surprisingly violently. Don’t google ‘raking’.

  • Question: “How do Bonobos make up after arguments?” 

Answer: Sex. Lots of sex. Like an unholy amount of sex.

  • Question: “What animal has the most successful relationships?”

Answer: A tie between, Wolves, Gibbons, Beavers, California Mice, Shingleback Lizards and vultures - who knew?!.

  • Question: “Is it only primates who can be seen to intervene in group conflict?”

Answer: Not by a long shot

Third party involvement in conflict management also shows up in troops of Proboscis monkeys through loud vocalisation, but it turns out that third party intervention in conflict isn’t just for the primates. Rooks for example have been seen to seek third party emotional support after conflict, preening of the feathers being the order of the day for an emotionally battered Corvus. However one of the most detailed examples comes from one of the smarter animals amongst us.

According to a study of 104 pigs on a farm in Italy ‘Domestic pigs (Sus scrofa) engage in non-random post-conflict affiliation with third parties: cognitive and functional implications (Cordoni et al, 2022)’ pigs can be seen reconciling after aggressive fights through close, intimate contact. They also take part in ‘triadic contact’ where a third party, uninvolved in the fight will console those involved, both victim and aggressor, resulting in reduced anxiety and a reduction in future aggressive attacks towards the victim, and others in the herd. Interestingly close family members are more likely to intervene as a third party than those further away in the social structure.

So why do animals, including us, engage in this phenomenon? What are the benefits for social animals? Let’s get back to the chimpanzees. In their article, Von Rohr et al conclude that the ‘main function of policing is to maintain the group’s social stability’. Co-operative and peaceful relationships between individuals in a group setting leads to many advantages that cannot be taken advantage of living in solitary confinement. Social groupings provide emotional richness, division of labour, shared learning, availability of potential mates and protection to name but a few. This would explain the findings of the authors that this mediating behaviour is quite rare as a conflict needs to be potentially endangering to the groups stability, the core relationships in that group and they require a member of sufficient authority in the group to get away with such brazen intervention, less they be aggressively targeted for getting in the way!

It’s really not that different to how we human apes handle conflict when you peel away the layers. People in authority, lawyers, judges, mediators, arbitrators, parents, teachers, intervene in conflicts in various ways to ensure societal stability. The "larger" people in our society step in, but only when something seriously threatens the social status quo. One only has to look at how often illegal Russian behaviour was ignored by the global community until the (second) invasion of Ukraine. An act that was deemed to be sufficiently against the social and legal contract that the world had to denounce the actions and stop playing with Russia's football.

However, I wonder whether there is a lesson to learn from the chimpanzees. Where conflicts do not endanger the group stability, no one intervenes. The chimpanzees are left to deal with the conflict themselves, perhaps evidencing that conflict is seen as a normal part of group living - as long as it doesn’t threaten the groups status quo. This brings to mind concepts of restorative justice or community dispute resolution where the group collectively settles disputes rather than an authority figure handing out justice from on high.

Or perhaps the lesson is simpler, to remember that we aren’t so different from the natural world around us. With that in mind, and in keeping with our animal theme, let’s finish with a quote from Sir David Attenborough himself:

"It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living."


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