Nonhuman Primates Occasionally Divide into Liberal, Conservative Camps

By Sharon Charles

Researchers working in west-central Africa have discovered that groups of nonhuman primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees sometimes divide into factions that mirror the liberal/conservative dichotomy in American politics, resulting in noisy and even violent quarrels among the great apes.

Mountain gorillas in Uganda, for example, which live in groups of six to twelve, become polarized along what appear to be political lines when one or two of the gorillas accumulate a grotesquely disproportionate amount of food. (Mountain gorillas are herbivorous and eat plants such as thistles, nettles, and wild celery.)

“We tracked a group of nine gorillas that, for six to seven months, were fairly placid and peaceful,” said Charlotte Wilkes, a professor of Outdoor Ethics and Wildlife Biology at the University of London. “They engaged in a lot of team-building exercises and bonding through social grooming; they’d shave each other’s fur and dye it a variety of colors, and use wooden or bamboo tweezers to pick out slivers and ticks from one another’s skin.”

“But then,” continued Wilkes, “when a tiny elite emerged and began hoarding 60 percent and eventually 75 percent of all the nettles and thistles in the area, rancor and division ensued. You might say that all the gorillas just went ape. The group separated into something like liberal and conservative camps, followed by the gorilla equivalent of trash-talking, laced with some of the most obscene gestures and vocalizations in the Animal Kingdom.”

The faction of conservative apes, or gorillas, even those who were poor in nettles and thistles, defended the right of one or two of their fellow knuckle walkers to gather and keep a thousand times more food — even a hundred thousand times more food — than the others in the group, according to Wilkes.

“The conservatives appeared to believe that the ‘thistle moguls,’ as we dubbed them, had foraged and earned all the food they possessed,” Wilkes said. “In response to this position or attitude, though, the liberal apes — and even a few seemingly centrist ones — beat their chests in outrage, screaming and hooting while jumping up and down in crazy circles and stomping the ground in the dense forest where they lived. They clearly thought there was something disastrously wrong with a sociopolitical system that divided the group into oligarchs and peasants.”