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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bow and Social Ranking

A basic rule in the pens is that people go in with Bow one at a time. During an initial introduction to a new person, I will sit in with them, but I will sit in a corner, making myself as small as I possibly can. After Bow knows somebody, and that person has earned the right to enter the pen, then Bow and that person can proceed with their relationship, but we never go in all together. Why? Because of social ranking, dominance hierarchies and the need to duke it out.

Bow wants to know who ranks higher. We all secretly do, don't we? Even if we're just having coffee with a friend, we might in some hidden part of our mind be wondering: "Who is more important here: him or me?" We've been socialized not to think like that, but 'fess up! Haven't you ever wondered?

There are human societies that are highly hierarchical. When two Korean students meet, for instance, they have to ask each other when each was born, so that they will know who ranks as senior. This will determine who will call the other "elder brother/elder sister" and "younger brother/younger sister." I don't know much about Japanese society, but I understand that it is also highly stratified, and requires the use of an extensive system of honorifics. How you rank determines what you call everybody and how you address them.

In French, as in many other European languages, there is a politeness distinction between addressing someone as "tu" or "vous". Originally, "tu" was second person singular and "vous" was second person plural, but the need to indicate verbally who is more important led to a different usage. English went so overboard with its politeness to everyone that it totally leveled the distinction between singular and plural second person. Nobody is addressed as "thou" anymore except for God, who obviously doesn't rank very high.

I come from a relatively egalitarian background. In Hebrew, second person singular still means you're talking to one person, and plural means there are several people being addressed. But even in egalitarian societies, not everybody ranks the same.

For a chimp, ranking is a matter of utmost importance. Bow wants to know who is more important, and he thinks the best way to find out is to start a brawl and to see who ends up on top. We try to avoid this by going in one at a time.

The other day, Bow's sitter, Lawrence and the computer guy, Tracey, were both on the same side of the zoo glass, away from Bow, for a moment. When Tracey, the computer repairman, arrived, Lawrence let him into the pen away from Bow. I looked at Bow and he was bristling with excitement. He let out an involuntary cry indicating that a fight was about to ensue. Bow was beside himself with joyous anticipation. "Fight, fight!" his vocalization said. He was so disappointed when the two human males did not gratify his need to find out which one ranked higher!

"We don't do that, Bow," Lawrence said to him. "We don't have to fight."

Bow's been raised among humans all his life. He's never seen a fight, except on TV. But he has a theory of mind, and like all of us, he projects his own motives onto others. He can't help but expect Lawrence and Tracey to behave the way he would under the same circumstances.


  1. It looks like that Lawrence knows pretty well about Bow's vocalization.

    Bow's instinct on the social ranking and the fact that he's never seen humans fight remind me that we humans, as a matter of fact, do fight for rankings (as you pointed out) when it comes to power in terms of politics and status in a family in which a husband "possesses" more than one wife. :)

  2. Yes, Lawrence knows Bow pretty well. He's been Bow's sitter for nearly two years now.

    Humans fight over ranking in many different ways. A husband can possess many wives. A wife may possess many husbands. Even Google page rank is a version of the same thing. We think we are more civilized, because it's less direct and more convoluted. But it's all essentially the same problem with different solutions.

  3. Having worked with horses all my life, I'm very familiar with the importance of a pecking order. It's interesting to see how the hierarchy manifests itself in different species.

  4. Some of our early volunteers with Project Bow had considerable experience with horses. Some of what they had learned helped, but other things are so different that it was not a good idea to try to transfer knowledge about the one species to the other.