Search This Blog


This content is not yet available over encrypted connections.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Competition versus Achievement

Some look at life as a competition. Others see it as a journey. One of the things that both Bow and I are missing in our lives is the competition. We're not missing the journey.

At this point in our existence, much of the stress that is normal to the average social being-- the stress of competing with peers -- is completely absent. We are not in the race, and nobody is breathing down our neck.

Is it normal to lead a life with suspended competition? Is competition the thing that Bow is really missing? Would he like it better if for every morsel of food he ate, he would have to compete with others, who could bully him out of it? Is he actually trying to goad us into violent encounters, because he misses the chance to try out his strength in a fight for life and death with a conspecific? It really does seem sometimes that there just isn't enough drama here for him. Lawrence and Tracey won't fight each other for dominance. He can't manipulate Sword and me into a fight. And nobody wants to fight him over anything. Is this too boring? Is the thing that is lacking the excitement of hand to hand combat?

About five years ago, when Bow was three, and I was at my wits' end trying unsuccessfully to potty train him, I wrote a letter to a famous ethologist asking for advice about dealing with Bow's lying. He claimed he didn't need to go when he did. He claimed he did need to go, when he didn't. It was clear he understood the rules, and he was using his lexigrams in an attempt to outwit us at the "game". To him, we were in competition. What I was trying to solicit was cooperation.

The famous ethologist did not deign to answer. But I got a letter from an assistant of his, a young whipper snapper many years my junior and who had less experience with chimpanzees than I did. He wrote that what Bow would really enjoy was the chance to compete for the position of Alpha male. He suggested that I should send him off right away to a sanctuary, so he could start competing.

I thought that was pretty stupid. Bow was still a little boy. Without a mother to protect him, he had a very good chance of being killed, if sent to live with a strange group of chimpanzees. Even the best male specimens, with mothers high on the dominance hierarchy, have years of bullying at the hands of older males before they have the chance to become competitive. Some don't make it.

But what the older ethologist had done to me, by sending a young, less educated, less experienced underling to answer my letter was also a form of bullying -- human style. He wanted to let me know that I did not count, and that I didn't deserve a considerate, thoughtful answer. He also wanted me to know that I had no chance with my human peers at landing even a foothold in the dominance hierarchy among primatologists.

There is an upside to all of this. Not being in constant competition frees a person -- whether that person is a chimp or a human -- to explore the reality of life outside the social sphere. It promotes introspection and even a more cooperative style of living.

Bow still gets to wrestle. Lawrence and he spend hours wrestling, sometimes. But the moment it stops being fun for Bow and he starts to feel a little afraid, Lawrence lets up. In this way, Bow has a lot more control over his life than the average chimpanzee. And I have a lot more control over my life, than the average primatologist!


  1. I don't think you or Bow are missing anything by stepping aside and letting the rest of the world chest-beat and compete. I'm sure you will accomplish a lot more without the distractions.

  2. HOW do people like the young less educated lad know that Bow doesn't like the life with you more than that with other chimps? People could be judgmental out of ignorance.

    This reminds me the conversation between Zhuangzi(莊子) and Huizi(惠子)...although it's somewhat irrelevant to your topic here.

    莊子與惠子遊 於濠梁之上 。

    (Free translation: Zhuangzi and Huizi went out together to Hauliang. Looking at the fish in the river, Zhuangzi commented: "The Yong fish swims leisurely in the water. That is the happiness being a fish." Huizi replied: "You are not fish, how would you know that the fish is happy?" Zhuangzi answered: "You are not me. How would you know that I don't know the fish is happy?"

    Argh. Sorry for distracting from your topic. :)

  3. Suzanne, thanks! We each are probably missing something by being isolated, but I tend to think that both for me and for Bow, what we gain more than compensates for what we have lost!

  4. June, that was a great fish story! You have inspired me with your question. Today's post will address what Bow has told me about his own preferences.

    How did the young lad know Bow doesn't like the life with me more? Clearly, it was because in my letter I described how Bow was playing tricks on me in the potty training game. But it's a big leap to say that every little boy who is not completely cooperative in this matter at the age of three should be sent to prison to compete with the big boys!

  5. Maybe someday when the less educated lad becomes a judge of family affairs (apparently that would imply the exam system goes wrong) would send little boys (only boys!) to prison because they refuse to eat carrots.

    I read your blog here almost everyday. I miss Bow. I don't even read your hubpages every day...big apology. :)

  6. Well, hopefully they'll never make him a family court judge or a social worker.

    My hubpages can be rather dry sometimes. I'm glad you have time to read the blog!