Many aspects of today’s world are often referred to as “jungles”. We have the concrete jungle in reference to large cities full of tall concrete buildings with hardly a patch of green in sight. We also have the corporate jungle, which many of us have to face daily in our jobs. While modern man has evolved from his former state of nature, it seems as if the laws of the jungle still apply in the modern world.
In order to survive in the modern jungle, it might be worthwhile to take some lessons from the real jungle. The chimpanzees (together with the bonobos) are our closest relatives and share about 97% of the same DNA with humans. They live in societies led by alpha males. These alpha males dominate all the other members of the group and use different types of strategies in order to attain and keep their rank. These strategies could be quite illuminating for the potential human alpha males as well.
The Rise of Mike
In 1960, Jane Goodall started studying a small group of chimpanzees living in the Gombe National Park near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. At the time, the alpha male of the group was Goliath, a huge chimpanzee who could intimidate other chimps with his size.
However in 1964, a remarkable thing happened. Goliath was deposed from his position by Mike, a physically much smaller chimpanzee, who until then was probably one of the lowest ranking males in the community, usually spending his time on the outskirts of the group, and often getting physically attacked by other males. He was usually the last one to get access to food, eating only after all the other males have eaten.
This changed almost from one day to the next. On one of those hot, sultry days that often happen in the African jungle, Mike walked over to the camp of the researchers and took two empty kerosene cans by their handles. Then, while carrying those two cans, he walked over to the place at which he was sitting previously, close to the other chimps.
He started to rock back and forth, at first only slightly, but then more and more vigorously. The other chimps noticed this and started to watch him intently. Mike began to make hooting sounds and then suddenly charged towards the place where the other males were sitting, running fast and hitting the two cans in front of him. When he approached them, the other males ran out of his way.
Mike ran a bit into the jungle and disappeared from sight, but in a few minutes he was back again, making a lot of noise and hitting the cans. He once again charged the other males. They once again ran away from him.
Then at that moment, he made a fateful decision. Goliath was sitting a bit away from the group, but Mike decided to charge him as well. He ran towards him, hitting the cans and hooting so loud, that even Goliath got out of his way.
Male chimpanzees show their submission to more powerful members of the group by grunting and reaching out their hands. The display persuaded all the other members of the group of Mike’s superiority. At that moment, all the other chimp males came up to Mike, grunting and reaching out their hands, and then grooming him. The last male chimp to come to him was David Greybeard, until then Goliath’s staunchest ally in the group. Only Goliath remained apart.
Mike vs. Goliath: The Showdown
The match was now set for a showdown: Mike vs. Goliath. Whoever would win this epic showdown would become the alpha male of the group.
The final showdown came one time after Goliath returned from a two week patrol in the southern parts of the group’s territory. One of the main roles of the alpha and the other males, was to protect their group’s territory and so they would often go off on patrols.
This day was the culmination of a period of fierce displays between Goliath, the incumbent alpha male and Mike, the challenger. Their displays grew more and more fierce, with both Goliath and Mike trying to outdo each other. Mike managed to learn how to keep three empty kerosene cans in motion and so his charging displays were very noisy and messy. Goliath would often charge and beat up some of the young chimps in order to show who the boss around there was.
That day, as he was returning from his patrol, Goliath grabbed a huge branch and dragged it towards Mike. Mike was sitting in a tree, ready for what was to come next.
Goliath, then leapt into a tree that was very close to the tree in which Mike was sitting. At first they starred at each other intently, motionless. Then Mike started his display. He started swinging wildly on the branches, jumped down to the ground and started hurling rocks at Goliath. Then he leapt into Goliath’s tree and started swinging the branches there.
Goliath reciprocated by doing a display very similar to Mike’s, swinging around and leaping to the ground in order to throw rocks at Mike. Then Mike came down again as well and they continued their charging displays on the ground. However they never even touched each other. Each tried to overcome the other just through a sheer display of intimidation.
Then the final moment came. They both stopped, and nervously eyed each other sitting down. Then suddenly Goliath ran up to Mike, and doing the chimpanzee sign of submission, began grunting and grooming Mike. Mike savored this for a moment, but then turned around and reciprocated. He was now the undisputed alpha male of the group.
This entire story, which was described in vivid detail in Jane Goodall’s book “In the Shadow of Man”, makes for a riveting and illuminating reading.
There are 3 main strategies that the male chimps use to gain alpha status.