Ard: So when you first made these discoveries, what did the scientific community… how did they react to this?
FdW: Well, that's an interesting historical question because when I was a student all we could talk about was violence and aggression, and in that context I discovered, by accident, it was not necessarily my intention, but I discovered that chimpanzees reconcile after their fights. So they may have a big fight, two males for example, and then ten minutes later one of them approaches the other and they kiss and embrace, and then they groom each other for an hour, and I thought this was awfully interesting. I found that more interesting than the fight itself. And so when I first presented that at meetings, scientific meetings, first of all people didn't know what to do with it, because they'd never heard of something like this, and second they would say, ‘Well, maybe chimps do that, but my animals certainly don't do it.’
So they wanted to make an exception for chimps, maybe, but they really didn't buy into it as an important problem. Now we know that lots of social animals reconcile after fights. It's actually very common behaviour, and it’s related to the fact that they have competition, but they also depend on each other, so it's just as in humans.
Ard: So they have cooperation?
FdW: I would say most animals cannot survive without cooperation. So cooperation occurs between single-cell organisms, between insects, all the mammals – well, there's some solitary mammals, but the majority live in either troops or groups or herds. So the level of cooperation, it's all sorts of different levels, but it's everywhere.
Ard: So it's like an instinct? Would you say cooperation is an instinct as much as competition is?
FdW: Yes, of course.
David: Why do you think we haven't seen it before?
FdW: I think after World War II there was this obsession with competition and aggression and selfishness that lasted until the 1980s or so. So our genes were selfish, we were selfish, and cooperation was a special case that we needed to explain, and we had a lot of trouble explaining it.
But now I think it's very well recognised that not just humans, but all sorts of animals, are cooperative, and there are all these tests of cooperation. So you can set up a test with chimpanzees, as we did… This was actually developed a hundred years ago here at Yerkes Primate Centre by Robert Yerkes and his people.
So they would set up a box that is too heavy for one chimp to pull in, and they would put food on the box. So you put two chimps who have ropes, – so they will have to cooperate – and they will have to synchronise and pull it in at the same time, and then they can share the food afterwards.
And we recently set it up in our group of chimps where, instead of just having two chimps, we used fifteen chimps. So now you have the potential of competition. So you have a box with food that they can pull into, two chimps or three chimps at a time. But everyone is present, and so the highest ranking members of the group, they can kick you away or they can steal your food, or someone can sit next to you and try to steal your food, free-loading basically, the free-loading problem.
And so we wanted to see how the chimps handle this situation where they have the options between competition and cooperation. If competition is stronger as an instinct, so to speak, then cooperation would all fall apart and there would be bickering and fighting. But actually we had 3,500 cooperative pulls in our test. So basically they were cooperating all the time, and they handled the competition very well. They were very good at either alternating positions or getting rid of free-loaders, or not working with someone who's too competitive so that he learns to become cooperative. And all these things were happening at that time.
David: That's terribly sophisticated behaviour.
FdW: Yeah, but they do that in the field also. We were not particularly surprised because in the field we know the chimpanzees hunt together for monkeys, for example, and they share the meat afterwards. So it's not like a totally new thing, but now we had sort of formalised it and shown that that's what's possible.
I wrote a book, Chimpanzee Politics, which is all about how chimpanzees compete for power, but it is cooperative, otherwise we wouldn't call it politics – then it would be just a pecking order like among chickens, and the biggest, meanest chicken is top. But that's not how chimpanzees operate.
In chimpanzees it’s very well possible for the smallest male to be the alpha-male. Now how is that possible? That's only because that male is maybe very diplomatic and grooms particular partners and gives them particular favours after he has reached the top. And so you don't need to be a big, heavy, strong male to be the alpha-male, and that is because the system is basically a cooperative system where you pick out your partners and your partners support you, as long as you’re useful for them, because why would they support you if you withhold all the benefits from them and so on?