Pathfinders – Nothing but animals

One of the more depressing clichés that socialists hear, especially in response to outbreaks of homicidal violence like that in Israel and Gaza, or Ukraine, is the lazy claim that humans are just wired that way – just look at chimpanzees.

A recent online comment stated that ‘chimps are our direct ancestors, closer than bonobos’, two untrue statements that could easily have been checked. Bonobos and chimps are actually so closely related they can interbreed, and both share around 98 percent of their DNA with humans, making them equally close cousins. Yet their behaviour is markedly different, which ought to prove right away that behaviour is not dependent on genetics.

Bonobos are famous for being egalitarian and promiscuous, but chimpanzee violence is what usually gets all the attention. However, according to Jane Goodall, chimps are not the incorrigible hooligans people think: ‘ … it is easy to get the impression that chimpanzees are more aggressive than they really are. In actuality, peaceful interactions are far more frequent than aggressive ones… and serious, wounding fights are very rare compared to brief, relatively mild ones’ ( In fact, serious and wounding fights are very rare in all species. There’s a lot of posturing (what’s called ‘agonistic behaviour’), but animals are generally not daft, and know when to call it a day (

Ethologists, who study animal behaviour, are always learning interesting things. For instance, that animals are very far from being heteronormative. A group of Spanish researchers have recently reviewed previous studies of same-sex sexual behaviour (SSSB) in 1,500 vertebrate and invertebrate species, and come up with interesting conclusions (

It seems that SSSB is widespread and nearly equally frequent in males and females, appears to have arisen many times, spontaneously and independently, and is more often found in social species. It’s been found in 261 mammal species, and 51 primate species, from lemurs to great apes. Other studies report similar findings in birds, reptiles, frogs and fish ( Nobody is sure why it happens, but many hypotheses exist. In sum, anyone claiming that human violence is natural but homosexuality is not, has a big problem.

Or take inequality. Human society is naturally unequal, runs the argument, just look at the animal kingdom. Clue’s in the word ‘kingdom’.

A new study published by the Royal Society gives the lie to this too. Data for 66 mammal species suggest that ‘mammalian societies run the gamut from egalitarian to hierarchical’ and that while sexual and resource competition are often drivers of inequality, strategies for combating inequality are also common. These include sharing, cooperation, conflict resolution and organised insurrection. It turns out that scientists have extensively studied the evolution of animal hierarchies but paid little attention to the evolution of ‘fairness’ and how it works. The researchers argue that ‘mammals rely upon a suite of mechanisms to balance the costs and benefits of equality for group living, and evolution does not necessarily favor hierarchy… The evolution of fairness has played as big a role in the evolution of mammal species … but it has been understudied’ ( Could capitalistic bias be the reason for this oversight?

In addition, what’s called ‘hierarchy’ isn’t a monolithic construct, but more of a dynamic and shifting gradient, going from the harsh and tyrannical at one end to the mild and benevolent at the other. Primate hierarchies, including chimpanzees and gorillas, generally occupy the middle ground. There is a dominance hierarchy, but it is offset by countervailing trends: ‘Factors that work to promote fairness among mammals include food sharing and adoptions, revolutionary coalitions, conflict resolution, and an aversion to inequality’.

Vampire bats share blood-food with weak and infirm relatives, chimpanzees share the produce of a hunt with the whole troupe, and elephants adopt orphaned young. Lionesses gang up on male lions to stop them killing their young. Even baboons, axiomatic as primate Nazis, have been known to adopt more peaceable and egalitarian lifestyles if their circumstances change, as observed by Stanford primatologist Robert Sapolsky in the 1990s (

The Royal Society report adds that many species, particularly primates, have a sense of fairness, or ‘aversion to inequality’. Capuchin monkeys who have to work to get a reward are liable to go on strike when they see other monkeys getting the same reward for doing nothing. This behaviour makes sense in terms of social species who have to get along together, and has also been observed in dogs, rats and corvids.

It has been fashionable for a century or more to regard animals as remote and unknowable, and any attempt to identify human-like behaviour in animals as vulgar anthropomorphism. This may be a relatively modern phenomenon though, the result of an increasing alienation caused by mass urbanisation as well as by the industrial factory farm system, which encourages a view of animals as ‘mere meat’. Darwin however had no problem seeing human morality as an extension of similar social behaviour amongst animals, and the well-known Russian anarchist and naturalist Peter Kropotkin produced volumes of evidence to show that cooperation was as important a driver of animal evolution as competition, indeed he argued in Mutual Aid (1902), more so.

But still, it may be argued that animals are animals, and humans are, well, different. And indeed, it’s fine to argue that humans are not bound by what other animals do. That means that if we want to establish a cooperative world society of shared resources and mutual aid, there’s nothing in our genetic heritage to prevent us. But what our detractors can’t do is cherry-pick their arguments, basing human behaviour on animals when it suits them, and ignoring other known animal behaviours when it doesn’t.


Next article: Palestine: the background ➤

One Reply to “Pathfinders – Nothing but animals”

  1. The ‘human nature’ argument against socialism is bogus. Local news is full of stories of people volunteering & raising money for charitable causes.

    Great article, by the way, especially the last sentence.

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