Chimps and ‘territoriality’

Chimpanzee behaviour has long been studied for clues about their human relatives, with conflict one of the most intriguing but unresolved areas.

All the documentary evidence indicates that war and its associated violence has been normal throughout history; therefore, in one sense speculations about the nature of war are just that, speculative, whether emanating from the ‘killer ape’ theory, or a necessity to fight over scarce resources, or even Rousseau’s suggestion that Mankind was essentially timid but became war-like when entering social relations, what Kant called Man’s ‘asocial sociability’ that could make war as well as peace.

In Clausewitzian, strategic terms the chimpanzees offer plenty of interest, with it being generally accepted that they make murderous group attacks; though the exact motivation for the attacks remains elusive, it is proven that chimpanzees make regular ‘patrols’ both within their territories and along the borders with neighbouring groups.

These ‘patrols’ can lead to attacks, some of which end in fatalities; chimp expert John Mitani observed a group of chimpanzees killing or fatally wounding eighteen individuals from other groups.

These attacks in the view of another well-known chimp expert, Richard Wrangham, as well as others, are prompted by the desire for territorial expansion; but whether this sense of ‘territoriality’ (that is, territorial behaviour) was to acquire new mates or resources has been a long-standing open question.

It is further interesting to note that Mitani’s chimpanzee ‘patrols’ were carried out in a distinctly different and purposeful manner from their normal behaviour, with little eating or socialising, as the patrollers were observed being ‘unusually silent and moving in single-file line, while attending carefully to signs of other chimpanzees’.

However, ‘territoriality’ is not a blind strategy that works irrespective of circumstances; just like humans, chimpanzees withdraw if they are outnumbered.

Ultimately, though, having ‘territory’ is the key to survival: in human terms perhaps the greatest embodiment of ‘territoriality’ is the sense of ‘homeland’, territories with deep historical significance and distinct identities and cultures: this has been exemplified by the Germans imbued with their profound respect for ‘heimat’ (homeland), with the Nazis demonstrating how this sense of ‘homeland’ could be powerfully manipulated while the political process is also apparent as a grass-roots movement such as with the so-called ‘Sagebrush Rebellion’ in the United States Mid-West.

In an international relations frame-work it is usual to view ‘territory’ in terms of disputes, diplomacy or the search for resources and the related theories like ‘resource wars’, ‘resource curse’ and ‘greed versus grievance’.

These theories, however, fail when searching for an explanation of the most profound motivation of ‘territoriality’: this motivation amounts to what Johnson and Toft call ‘the recurrent and severe costs that individuals, groups, and states are prepared to accept in conflict over land, especially when such territory has little or no economic or strategic value’.

Johnson and Toft suggest that the answer to this conundrum lies in ‘evolutionary biology’, a process that over time has inculcated the knowledge that ‘territoriality’ is a successful strategy: ‘territorial behaviour facilitates effective competition for resources such as food, mates, shelter, breeding sites, and security from predators’ they wrote.    Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre

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