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Rise of the Planet of the Moralists 5: Social Dominance and Power

Rise of the Planet of the Moralists Series
1: Introduction
2: Chains and Trees
3: Clades and grades
4: Predicting traits
5: Social dominance and power

Thus far we have focused on the differences between human beings and apes, and the ways we should expect to find each species behave. What do all apes have that is common in the moral realm? The answer again comes from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan.

The Mikado, you will recall, is a comedy of rank. At a time where there were some serious rules to observe about who was above or below or equal with whom in Victorian society, a notion called precedence, Gilbert placed a savage parody of English social status in a neutral (to the English) context that had recently become all the rage in Victorian culture: Japan. The Mikado, the emperor of Japan, declares flirting a capital crime and so the officials of the town of Titipu appoint Ko-Ko to the rank of Lord High Executioner, as he has been condemned, but can’t execute himself and so nobody else can be either. The irony is that this man is actually a tailor, not a member of the aristocracy, and he of course turns the position to his profit (“trade” in English society being not well regarded). He is introduced to the audience with the chorus:

Defer! Defer!
To the Lord High Executioner!

Deference is what humans do to high rank individuals. As it happens, it is also what all primates do when confronted with dominant individuals. When faced with a dominant chimp, other chimps lower themselves and do not stare. To do so is to make a challenge that might be met with violence. The same occurs with gorillas. Likewise many troop primates such as baboons, macaques and rhesus monkeys, although it is not always the dominant male that runs the troop or determines social rank.

Social dominance behaviours, however they are arranged in each species – male driven or female driven, monogynous or polygynous (whether males have a one or many mates) – self organise by interactions between individuals. Put a group of school-aged children in a playground and they will sort themselves into such a hierarchy. The same thing will occur if an artificial troop of apes or monkeys is put together in a zoo enclosure.

One thing that we see in the film is the keepers at the ape facility behaving just like apes, only like apes without empathy, and empathy is pretty much a universal trait along apes, including humans, in the right circumstances. The son of the head keeper, Dodge, treats subordinates with violence and cruelty. This is not typical ape behaviour, with one caveat. Apes tend not to treat their own troop members this way – if a dominance competition is over, as we see in the film, the rest is relatively amiable, although just as with humans there can be bad tempered and even domestically violent apes.

But is it typical human behaviour? Obviously not. Despite Hobbes’ claim that “life in a state of nature” would be “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short”, anthropologists observe that except in cases of intertribal warfare, and often even then, humans are not typically violent, and as Stephen Pinker has recently argued (controversially!), modern humans are even less violent than their ancestors (although this is most likely a cultural, not a biological, shift; in times and societies of plenty, violence is no longer a profitable activity, so we are inclined not to behave that way. This also seems to be true of chimps, as noted before).

So despite the message of the film that humans lack empathy and the apes are the true moralists (though Caesar accidentally killed the main tormentor, Dodge), in fact all apes, including humans, are generally not too bad to be around except in extreme circumstances usually involving between group competition.

I can’t resist one final dig; this time at American culture. Now I should say that my second-favourite nation is America. Every time I visit I am taken by the people, the cultural variation, the scenery and the achievements. The fact that most of the achievements occurred over fifty years ago is irrelevant. But I am also taken by the overt militarism of everyday life.

America has numerous cultural myths, as do all nations that cohere due to national pride and shared values. These values take work to maintain, and the standard technique is to tell stories. However, most American stories seem to involve righteous violence. One might not see many military in a European, British, or Commonwealth nation (obviously I can’t speak to African members or Sri Lanka during its civil war) on the streets. In America, you see them everywhere.

I wonder if what the film is really targeting is not humans, but American cultural values; that violence is okay when it is righteous but not when it is selfish. Ape violence is fleeting and aimed at getting resources and mates. American violence is aimed at making sure whole classes of people are marginalised and demonised, and it is persistent. Biology has been warped somewhat by these values.

America is hardly the only place this has happened, nor the only empire to exhibit these traits, but the casual cruelty of the keepers in the film is hard to explain if not in terms of something like an extreme individualism and lack of social commitment. These are ideas, not biology. The film is attacking the careless selfish egoism of modern conservatism in US politics. But perhaps I am asking too much of a movie here; the apes are not a literal group, but a metaphor for the powerless and marginalised in human society. As a metaphor, the film is a revolutionary tract. As biology, and as moral philosophy, it is grist to my mill. Best to take it as a metaphor.

So that wraps up my ruminations on this film. It is much better than it ought to be, and is a triumph of the script writers’ craft, as Dark Knight was also, at presenting philosophical conundrums. I can only hope that this is a trend in films, because it will make for much more interesting philosophical commentary.


  1. Jim Thomerson Jim Thomerson

    Interesting comment about the presence of American military. When I traveled in Europe in 1991, as I recall, the only uniformed military I saw in train stations, etc. were American. I was in the Army National Guard while I was in graduate school. I had weekly evening drill, and Sunday drill once a month. So I occasionally showed up at the lab in uniform. Some of my colleagues were taken aback the first time they witnessed this.

  2. Collin Collin

    Sorry for being OOC, but do you actually like the film Dark Knight?
    In second-order logic, I can see that Dark Knight could be hailed as a way of retiring a myth that may be outdated. But in first-order logic, I found it quite pointless. There are, of course, many opinions about what to do with a terrorist leader. Personally, I consider them all partly immoral, but arguably better than doing nothing. Batman seemed determined to stop the Joker specifically by killing him. And then after bringing the Joker to literally a handspan from death, he relented, set him free, and ran away from the problem.
    This might be an allusion to the war against “Al Qaeda”, except for one big problem: There is no real person heroic enough to make the analogy work.

    • TheDudeDiogenes TheDudeDiogenes

      Batman didn’t set the Joker free. He was hanging from a cable and the SWAT team had arrived – presumably to take him into custody and solitary confinement.

    • Liking the way a conundrum is treated is not the same as agreeing with the solution. I gave my analysis of TDK here.

      • Raving Raving

        The ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ is targeted against a person’s sense-of-self
        It is a game of ‘Silly Buggers’

        I admit to being a silly bugger.
        Can you?

  3. Raving Raving

    Sophical Dominance

    Strongest illusion wins (objectivity is also subjective)
    (subjective objective prideful egotistical emotional physical memorable …)

    Perhaps apes+humans have an enhanced appreciation of subjective ‘self’

    appreciation-of-self = object in context
    (self aware, perspective transformation)

  4. Jeb Jeb

    “Stephen Pinker has recently argued (controversially!), modern humans are even less violent than their ancestors (although this is most likely a cultural, not a biological, shift; in times and societies of plenty, violence is no longer a profitable activity, so we are inclined not to behave that way.”

    Not read Stephen Pinker, caught a lecture by him on it that left me far from impressed. Violence is often not profitable or indeed a society may not have the resources to deploy it or can use it only to a limited extent.

    Ethnicity and legal status can be deployed far more effectively than violence to ensure the cultural eradication of competing ethnic groups.

    A form of economic apartheid based on legal status was the favoured weapon of early medieval warlords. It ensured that other ethnic groups coming under political dominance had a far reduced chance of reproductive successes. The early church also used it to target particular social groups it viewed as a threat.

    I rather like Christopher Boehm’s take on a moral perspective that he views as a cultural control on the dominance of particular individuals and one that develops in small scale society. An egalitarian ethos that every adult is equal. A group check on aggressive individuals.

    I think it may be the same factor at play for U.S Generals or 6th century warlords, when you lose sight of the fact that we are equal and start to view particular cultural groups as less than equal it is going to end in suffering. We are perfectly capable of engaging in these acts without violence and the long- term effect on targeted groups is cultural eradication. More effective, less costly than violence and you can pretend to be more moral upright with blood free hands.

    Pinker’s argument says more about contemporary, perspectives, aspirations and belief I suspect although I hope reading him further may prove me wrong.

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