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#20. Play Can Tip the Balance from Despotic Toward Egalitarian Living: The Case for Macaques
Comparisons of despotic and more tolerant macaque societies help us understand how play can promote cooperative living.
As steps toward understanding how play made it possible for early humans to live in multi-male multi-female societies and survive by sharing and cooperating, I have in recent letters examined the roles of adult play in other mammals. In Letter #18 I gave examples of play’s power to promote long-term cooperation in carnivores that hunt in packs. In Letter #19 I described how play among adult bonobos allows them to live in societies that are larger and more peaceful than those of their less-playful cousins the chimpanzees and how play among female bonobos allows them to band together to dominate males. Now, as a final example before turning to humans, we look at macaque monkeys
Egalitarian Macaques Play More and Differently than Despotic Macaques
Twenty different species of macaque monkeys, living in different areas in the world, have been studied for differences in their social organization. All macaques live in colonies that include both males and females, but species differ in colony organization. The species have been ranked on a scale from highly despotic to relatively egalitarian (Thierry, 2000).
In the most despotic species, including Japanese and rhesus macaques, the colonies are steeply hierarchical, such that dominant individuals regularly intimidate and subjugate those who rank lower. At the other end of the spectrum the most egalitarian species—including Tonkean and crested macaques—live in relatively peaceful colonies, where dominance hierarchies are muted, fighting is rare, and cooperation is common. Much research has shown that, overall, the relatively egalitarian species are more playful than the despotic ones, and play appears to be a major means by which they avoid conflict within the colony (Palagi, 2023).
In one study comparing egalitarian Tonkean macaques with despotic Japanese macaques, both living in semi-natural conditions, researchers found much more play in the juveniles and adult females of the former than the latter (Ciani et al, 2012). Interestingly, they found no difference in the amount of play among adult males in the two species. The researchers suggest that play among adults may serve different functions for male and female macaques.
Among all macaques, males but not females leave their natal colony and join a new one when they reach sexual maturity, so play for males may be a way of establishing new relationships, allowing them entry into a colony of strangers, a function that may be as important in steeply hierarchical colonies as in egalitarian ones. For females, who stay in their native colony, play may be primarily a means of maintaining egalitarian relationships among long-term friends, which is crucial to the Tonkean macaque way of life but not to the Japanese macaque way of life.
Other research indicates that the manner of play for the more egalitarian species differs from that for despotic species (Petit et al., 2008; Reinhart et al., 2010). Juvenile Tonkean and crested macaques commonly wrestle while lying on their sides or backs, in a manner that bears little resemblance to real fighting, and they often engage in group play, with multiple partners, in which they cluster into “writhing masses of bodies.” In contrast, young Japanese macaques play fight almost entirely in pairs, in which they adopt defensive postures and play-bite in ways that mimic real fighting.
These observations suggest that juveniles of the egalitarian and despotic species are practicing different sets of skills in their play. The former appear to be practicing social and emotional skills that enable close contact without fighting or fleeing, while the latter appear to be practicing fighting and may also be gaining information about one another’s strengths and weaknesses for use in dominance struggles to come.
We humans, of course, are primates, rather closely related to macaques and very closely related to chimpanzees and bonobos. At our core we are built from the same stuff as they, but we have taken on a remarkable—maybe wonderful, maybe dreadful, certainly dangerous—layer beyond them, which has allowed us to dominate the earth and use its resources at an ever-accelerating rate. I have been discussing aggression and play in other animals, especially primates, because we inherited essentially the same drives that they inherited from our common ancestors. In letters to come we will look at how both our biological and cultural evolution as humans have added on and made us what we are or potentially might be.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. They will add to the value of this letter. If you aren’t already subscribed to this Substack series, please subscribe now, and let others who might be interested know about it. By subscribing, you will receive an email notification of each new letter.
This letter draws directly from a chapter, which I wrote for an academic book a few years ago: Peter Gray. The play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. McKenna, & P. Gray (Eds.), Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: culture, childrearing and social wellbeing (pp. 190-213). New York: Oxford University Press. 2014
Ciani, F., Dall’Olio, S., Stanyon, R., & Palagi, E. (2012). Social tolerance and adult play in macaque societies: A comparison with different human cultures. Animal Behaviour, 84, 1313-1322.
Palagi, E. (2023). Adult play and the evolution of tolerant and cooperative societies Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 148 (2023) 105124
Petit, O., Bertrand, F., & Thierry, B. (2008). Social play in crested and Japanese macaques: Testing the covariation hypothesis. Developmental Psychobiology, 50, 399-407.
Reinhart, C. J., Pellis, V. C., Thierry, B., Gauthier, C-A., VanderLaan, D. P., Vasey, P. L., & Pellis, S. M. (2010). Targets and tactics of play fighting: Competitive versus cooperative styles of play in Japanese and Tonkean Macaques. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23, 166-200.
Thierry, B. (2000). Covariation and conflict management patterns across macaque species. In, F. Aureli & F. B. M. de Waal (Eds), Natural conflict resolution, pp. 106-128. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.