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From the simple to the complex
Anatomy by Level of Organization

Help Livres du primatologue Frans de Waal Book : Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Cloth edition, 1997. (240 p.) Les macaques choisissent la monarchie héréditaire
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The functional hierarchies in living organisms do not work the same way as the hierarchies of values or social classes in human societies.

These social hierarchies reflect an instinct for dominance that lets people acquire power to better satisfy their own needs. In such hierarchies, the higher levels control the lower levels, and information travels essentially from the top down.

In contrast, in functional hierarchies in living organisms, each higher level of complexity subsumes the levels below it but does not control them. Instead, it simply informs them of the needs of the organism as a whole. In return, the lower levels make the metabolic needs of their components known to the higher levels. Thus, information travels in both directions.


Scarcity of resources that are geographically concentrated (and hence physically defendable) encourages the emergence of aggressive competition among the individuals in a society. As a result, a dominance hierarchy becomes established that institutionalizes these conflictual relationships.

The main effect of this hierarchy is that every individual strives to rise to higher levels to obtain better access to the scarce resources.

As the following table shows, when aggressive competition results in a dominance hierarchy, people form alliances and engage in behaviours either to reduce the tension among them (for example, mutual grooming among primates, or social conversation among humans) or to reconcile after conflicts.

Studies have shown that among the great apes, rank in the dominance hierarchy is transmitted in two main ways:

  1. through family-support mechanisms: when a mother helps her offspring to deal with their first conflicts, she passes her dominance ranking on to them, thus preventing them from slipping further down in the hierarchy;

  2. through alliances with high-ranking individuals: when one individual intervenes in a conflict between two others, it is always to support the more dominant individual. The corollary is that a dominant individual who is isolated and deprived of his or her usual sources of support will quickly be overthrown by a coalition of subordinate individuals.

In human societies, family dynasties and constant business mergers are manifestations of these same mechanisms that are already so well developed in other primate species. And just like our cousins the apes, we humans rarely take our confrontations all the way to the point of physical combat, because through the interplay of alliances, our hierarchies become highly stable. Thus, they often perpetuate social inequalities from one generation to the next. This phenomenon is far more complex in human societies than in those of other primates, but in essence there is nothing new about it.

Even today, our political systems, despite their seeming diversity, are still influenced by these very old mechanisms for centralizing power. These systems may no longer be monarchies, but regardless of what we call them, they are still actually controlled by a very small number of dominant individuals.

In today’s human societies, however, information is becoming a more important source of power than physical resources. The influence of the mass media and the public relations firms that work for the large multinationals drives this fact home vividly.

Socially, the key difference between humans and other primates is unquestionably our use of language, which lets us achieve high levels of abstraction and hence gives us a high potential for deception.

In ape societies, there are no wars. There are no political movements built around leaders who channel the aggression of one group against another. In human societies, however, language can be used to focus a country’s entire population on a single goal. For instance, the ruling class will use fine speeches to stir up the patriotic fervour needed for its wars of conquest.

But language can also build bridges among human beings, because it gives us such an effective tool for understanding one another.

Tool Module: Primatology
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