Jane Goodall turned our understanding of chimpanzees upside down. From her unprecedented observations, we’ve taken the view of chimpanzees as violent and domineering, a view that’s been used to proffer up the perspective that humans, too, are by nature violent, and that dominance hierarchies are natural to us. But how did Goodall get such unprecedented access? By giving them food. I’ve not read The Egalitarians—Human and Chimpanzee: An Anthropological View of Social Organization, but I do think that Theodore Kemper’s review in The American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 97, No. 6 (May, 1992), pp. 1757-1759) is in need of a handy URL for future reference.
Essentially, Power argues that because human hunter-gatherers and chimpanzees in the wild share the same ecological niche, their social organization is remarkably similar. The qualifier, in the wild, is significant, inasmuch as the dominant paradigm in chimpanzee studies today derives from the later work of Jane Goodall, who reports that the animals are strongly territorial, aggressive, and dominance-seeking. Whereas Goodall’s analysis might support a theory of phylogenetic continuity for similiar, biologically inherent, agonistic qualities in humans, Power’s important contribution is to show that Goodall’s conclusions may rest principally on the “unnatural” environment that Goodall herself created for the apes in order to facilitate observation of their behavior.
When Goodall began her naturalistic studies of chimpanzees in 1960 in the Gombe National Park area of Tanzania, she was a distinctly non-participant observer. After some years of patiently tracking apes over large areas, Goodall discovered that she could lure animals into a more or less permanent prescence around her camp, thereby improving opportunities to observe social interaction, by baiting the camp with supplies of bananas. Indeed, this was an inspired notion. According to Power, it worked too well.
Power maintains that the change that Goodall engineered in the food supply warped the chimpanzees’ conduct and social organization more or less permanently. Power pursues the argument by examining the differences between Goodall’s observations prior to the artificial feeding regimen and the subsequent findings. Goodall herself does not rely much on the results of her early work.
Power argues that, like human hunter-gatherers, chimpanzees in the wild roam widely, rarely confronting each other in direct competition over food. Goodall’s artificial feeding, practiced from 1964 to 1968, introduced direct competition among the apes for the first time. Bunched around the feeding boxes and often frustrated by not obtaining the bananas (which were doled out according to specific schedules), the animals began to engage in more intense forms of competitive, aggressive, and threatening behavior than was known to occur in the wild.
Goodall’s work has been heralded for bringing observations of chimpanzees in the wild. It sounds like that was only made possible by taking away the “wild” part. We’ve discussed in depth elsewhere on this site how the hoarding of food allowed by agriculture allowed elites to emerge, with hierarchies and coercive force to maintain them. Goodall’s observation of chimpanzees have often been used to excuse this order as “natural,” but Power’s work suggests that instead, Goodall’s unconsidered civilized assumptions succeeded in civilizing chimpanzees.