Peaceful monkey societies rely on good policing

A new study shows that police are not unique to human societies – monkeys have them too. More importantly, removing those police from either society would make them less happy places, says Jessica Flack of the Santa Fe Institute.

Police in monkey societies are not specially assigned task forces, but are small coteries of high-ranking individuals that intervene to break up conflicts between lower-ranking individuals in an apparently disinterested way, says Flack. However, if they are taken out, the society descends into anarchy and chaos just like a human society.

In a study of a captive group of 84 pigtailed macaques (of whom 45 were adults), three of four dominant males – the acting police force – were removed. Researchers found:

  • When the policing males were removed, group cohesion rapidly began to disintegrate.

  • Cliques formed and there was a breakdown of social networks and contact through communal activities like playing, grooming and sitting together.

  • The amount of violence also escalated, with no one to broker the peace.

    Policing allows members to socialise widely at little risk and hold a large troop together, since the police will intervene if things get out of hand, says Flack.

    Furthermore, the benefit to the police themselves is the size of the troop, with the attendant virtues of defensive strength and (for the males) more available females. In simian, as in human society, rank hath its privilege – and its obligation, too, says Flack.

    Source: Editorial, The police are a bunch of monkeys, Economist, January 28, 2006; based upon: Jessica Flack, Pigtailed Police, Nature, Vol. 439, January 2006.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 25 April 2006
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