Coalitions and Chimps

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens makes an effort to show that the Cognitive Revolution changed the direction of evolution for human species. He takes a long view of history, exploring how humanity first evolved, and how our evolutionary track took us in a different direction than the evolutionary track of most other large and dominant animals. To demonstrate just how much the Cognitive Revolution changed humans, Harari first looks at chimpanzees, a very close human cousin.
Harari explains that similar to humans, chimps form social groups and tribes. However, unlike humans, their groups only manage to get to a few dozen individuals, not millions of people. Again similarly to humans, chimps form sub-groups and coalitions based on physical closeness, touching, grooming, and mutual favors. The entire tribe is often influenced by smaller dynamics within coalitions. For example, Harari writes, “the alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities. Members of a coalition spend more time together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble.”
Chimps are social creatures and form tribes and coalitions, but at a rudimentary level compared to humans. Harari introduces chimps and their social culture in part to dispel some myths – such as ideas of only the strong survive or of stereotypical macho-manliness for leadership. Survival among social species is often more dependent on who can demonstrate leadership well and form large coalitions where pure numbers outweigh pure physical strength. Individuals live and survive by being part of a collective, where resources are shared, where aid is given, and where we generally are willing to trust and assist others – rather than kill them to take their bananas. Chimps and the coalitions they build are a miniature and simplified version of the kinds of coalitions and social structures that humans have formed and have expanded across the globe. Looking at chimps and how they behave is helpful to understand how human evolution initially took off and how we came to be the species we are today.

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