I’m waiting in a movie theater line behind two women who are clearly friends. And rivals.
“Max won front line seats to this weekend’s game. It’s the first month the school is offering prizes for the highest overall score and Max is their first winner. Already we can see the advantages of this new school.”
“That’s so nice for him. Jeffrey really prefers playing football to just sitting there watching it. The coach keeps telling us that Jeffrey is a natural and sure to get a Big Ten scholarship.”
“Don’t you worry about him tackling when he’s so young? I heard that high school football players can get brain damage and Jeffrey is only 14, probably smaller than the other players. It’s such a risk.”
“That’s so sweet of you to be concerned. But Jeffrey isn’t taking a risk. He’s learning to look out for himself. That makes a difference in the real world. I’m more concerned for Max, insulated by that private school from experiences that could toughen him up. He’s such a nice guy, I’m worried for him.”
Barbed remarks just kept coming from their smiling mouths.
Yes, I’m a biased observer. I prefer what’s gentle, inclusive, and nature-based. This generally works for me. I say “generally” because I’m hampered when communicating with certain people—those who one-up each over with how perfect their lives are or, conversely, spar about who has it worse. I’m well aware that it’s best to listen with empathy but sometimes I can’t help myself. I just want to get out of the way. That’s because these conversations remind me of angry primates flinging poo.
Turns out there’s something to that image. Biological anthropologist Gwen Dewar noted that the “verbal sniping, snobbery, one-ups-manship, and cruelty” of mean moms has a striking parallel in the animal kingdom. Yup, she’s talking about monkeys and apes.
Females in certain monkey societies live in dominance hierarchies. There are perks for those at the top of the social ladder such as better food and first choice of sleeping places. In bad times, higher ranking females and their offspring are more likely to survive. Social rankings don’t budge. Top monkey moms make sure their daughters share their status. Low-ranking monkey moms can’t do anything to help their daughters move from up from the bottom. And middle-ranking moms can only ensure that their daughters stay in that relatively comfortable spot.
This stratification happens because monkey mothers are pushy. Top monkey moms enlist their powerful relatives in an ongoing campaign to make low-ranking monkeys defer to their daughters. As Dewar puts it, “These girls learn to be snobs. To form social cliques. To harass their social inferiors and toady to their social betters.” At a young age, monkeys know who pushes and who gets pushed. They work hard to assert their own status in order to pass that status (and the survival benefits) along to their daughters.
The analogy isn’t perfect. Humans are pushy for reasons more complex than access to food and better choices of sleeping spots. Plus, we have even more reasons not to be pushy.
But even primates are hard to categorize. Only certain species, like baboons, live in groups with the female dominance hierarchies that Dewar likened to “mean moms.” Other species are wonderfully egalitarian, with strong female alliances, like the bonobos.
Bonobos live in matriarchal peace-loving groups. One of the many ways they get along is by frequently offering each other casual sexual stimulation, which rules out suggesting bonobo style friendship to moms waiting in line at the movie theater.
Putting that particular bonobo feel-good formula aside, what primate-like politics do you observe in your fellow humans? How about you? Baboon or bonobo?