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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Meditation on Violence

People are really uncomfortable with the subject of violence, to the point where it is almost taboo to point out to them that violence is normal and natural, serves a useful function, and resides in each of us, ready to be put into effect if and when the need arises. When it comes to chimpanzees, people's attitude toward violence colors their view of the species.  I have encountered the following groupings:

1. People who like chimpanzees and therefore think they are non-violent.

2. People who don't like chimpanzees because they know they are violent.

3. People who like chimpanzees and know they are violent, but think that's okay because they are wild animals, and there is a special dispensation for wild animals to be violent.

What I haven't met too many of are people like me, who like chimpanzees, know that violence is a part of their behavioral repertoire and think that's okay. It's also part of my behavioral repertoire and yours and of most human beings.

I've had people tell me that they know that violence in wild chimpanzees has been documented, but they believe that it's only the encroachment of man that drove them to it, and by nature chimpanzees have no violent tendencies. These people belong to group one, and they subscribe to the noble savage view of chimpanzees. They probably think that about aboriginal human beings, too.

I've had people tell me that chimpanzees are dangerous because they kill and maim, and so they should be kept far, far away from us. Some of those people belong to group two and some belong to group three, because those two groups have a lot in common. Let's face it: saying you like chimpanzees but you want them to be kept separate from humans at all times is a lot like saying that you like Finns as long as they stay in Finland among their own kind and far, far away from you.

Do chimpanzees kill and maim? Definitely, but so do humans.

And what about Bow? He can be violent and he can be sweet, and it varies. Sweetness is met with sweetness, and to the extent that the violence cannot be met with violence, it is met with a retreat.
I recognize that I cannot match Bow blow for blow, so I excercise caution and discretion, but it's not because I think it would be bad to do otherwise. I just have to be realistic about my own personal resources.

Recently, in a discussion of violence in the schools, someone said to me that violence in children is always a result of bad parenting. I had to bite my tongue not to give them my full opinion about this. Can violent behavior be one of the results of bad parenting? Sure. But it need not be. That would be like saying that Bow's dominance displays are entirely due to the way he was brought up. I can assure you he never saw a dominance display once the whole time he was growing up. He didn't learn it from me, and he's not doing it because he's bad or because I'm bad. He's doing it because it comes naturally.

I think it comes naturally to a lot of human adolescents, too. Not everyone is equally aggressive, and not everyone uses it to hurt others. Violence, after all, can be channeled into good uses: gangs of teens roaming the streets preserving the law instead of breaking it. But if we tell the young that it's violence that is wrong, instead of unfairness towards others, then we will leave those with aggressive instincts with only one choice: illicit violence.

So what about Bow? Well, just to reassure you that everything is fine, here is a video from today.



As a parent, of course, I don't want my children engaging in violent acts against innocent people. But at the same time, trying to place a complete moratorium on displays of aggression isn't any different from trying to eliminate all displays of affection. Affection and aggression are both natural and necessary. So the issue that I grapple with on a daily basis now is how to allow Bow an appropriate outlet for his more aggressive tendencies. This is probably what many other parents of adolescents are also grappling with.


14 comments:

  1. I'd be very interested to know what you thought about the catharsis hypothesis.

    Also, I enjoy your blog, and Bow is very cool.

    Cheers!
    Alan

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  2. Thanks, Alan!

    If by the catharsis hypothesis you mean that anger and aggression can be dissipated by imaginative means, then I think it has a limited application. Certainly, fantasizing about violence can diffuse the urge to engage in it right away, but it may not address the underlying need.

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  3. Thank you for your response.

    Yes, that is what I meant. I suppose I am mainly curious about what outlets, imaginative or not, you have explored to engage and/or direct Bow's aggressive tendencies.

    To digress, I must add that I applaud your commitment and approach to Bow. It seems common, at least historically, for linguistic researchers to discard a chimpanzee once it becomes powerful enough to easily handle. Is it not ironic and a bit sinister that such researchers--often trained in psychology, and certainly aware of a chimp's emotional capacity--fail to recognize, or worse, ignore the trauma they inflict upon their subjects by abandoning them during the most pivotal stage of their development? It's very sad, and I am delighted by those like yourself who take a more responsible and compassionate route.

    Cheers!
    Alan

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  4. Thanks, Alan. I have always felt that it should not be a choice for Bow between other chimpanzees and the human family he grew up with. He should, ideally, have contact with both.

    Some censure me for denying Bow chimpanzee companionship, but I was hoping that eventually Bow and I could meet other chimpanzees and humans who would allow our family connection to continue, while Bow made other friends of his own kind and expanded his social circle.

    One of the outlets for aggression for Bow that I would like to try would be to introduce him to other chimpanzees through Skype video chats. They could practice as much aggression as they liked, but nobody would get hurt. So far, I have not been able to persuade others to allow this.

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  5. I enjoyed watching you interact with Bow on this video. He seems to respond to you well, but also he likes to do what he wants as well. He is independent likes kids his age. I know my niece always tells us no one is the boss of her when she thinks she is right about something, like telling someone to clean her room.

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  6. I enjoyed watching you interact with Bow on this video. He seems to respond to you well, but also he likes to do what he wants as well. He is independent like human kids his age. I know my niece always tells us no one is the boss of her when she thinks she is right about something, like telling someone to clean her room.

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  7. JewelandtheSun, thanks! Bow is definitely his own person, and while he can be affectionate and playful, he does not want to be told what to do, just like your niece.

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  8. Thanks again for you response.

    It is surprising that anyone would decline a harmless Skype chat. I can't imagine it causing a problem. Coincidentally, I've read very recently that the Milwaukee Zoo wants to set up Skype on a network of iPads for play dates with orangutans from different zoos. There are supposedly several zoos interested in doing this and some of them may have chimpanzees as well. The people creating this network are at least of like mind, and perhaps willing to help you set something up.

    Anyway, I hope you have success expanding Bow's social circle without it limiting your connection to him. I wish you and Bow the best of luck.

    Cheers!
    Alan

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  9. Alan, it is surprising that anyone would decline a simple Skype call for institutional chimpanzees. However, there is something called, IACUC, (institutional animal care and use committee), and any researcher with funding from federal agencies must set up such a committee to oversee all research using animals. They must then do as instructed by IACUC or risk losing their funding -- and in some cases risk losing the Federal funding for their entire institution.

    IACUC quarantines animals not under IACUC supervision and does not allow them to interact with those who are within the system.

    Bow and I have no Federal funding and no IACUC supervision. As a result of the regulations we have been cut off from meaningful interactions with other chimpanzees and other researchers who are part of the system.

    You can read more about it here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IACUC

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  10. Touche IACUC, touche. A very sarcastic shout-out to bureaucratic alienation is in order. Forgive my unintended implication that you hadn't already exhausted this avenue. I suppose that other countries have similar systems in place.

    Early next year I begin postdoctoral work in Jerusalem, and, since there will be a zoo essentially in my back yard, I plan to volunteer my spare time there. They apparently have a breeding group of chimpanzees. For what it's worth, in the extremely unlikely event that I could be of some assistance, I'd be happy to help you with your Skype goal.

    Cheers!
    Alan

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  11. Alan, that's great news! What will your post doctoral studies be about? Are you going to be at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem? It would be wonderful for Bow to be able to see Israeli chimpanzees!

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  12. Thanks, Aya.

    Yes, I will be at the Earth Sciences Institute at Hebrew University. I'm quite excited to go. Jerusalem is a very beautiful and historically rich place. Anyway, my main project there will be to create a chronologic framework for seismogenic rock falls from cliff-faces in the Negev Desert. This will be used as a proxy for determining the recurrence interval of large earthquakes along the Dead Sea fault zone. There are also a few archeological studies I might become involved with, but I haven't been given any information about those yet.

    As for Bow, once I'm settled and start volunteering I'll ask the staff if a Skype chat with one of their chimps is feasible. I have no idea what kind of red tape Israeli zoos have to deal with, but it can't hurt to ask.

    Cheers!
    Alan

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  13. Alan, it sounds like a fascinating topic, and I am sure you will enjoy your stay in Jerusalem.

    Zoos in general are not always that eager to involve their animals in anything beyond the prescribed "enrichment". But it's certainly worth a shot...

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  14. Thanks, Aya. At this point, after five years in Atlantic Canada, I'm happy just going somewhere warm and dry. It is a huge bonus that that somewhere is such a cultural hotspot.

    Anyway, I'll let you know what develops with the Jerusalem zoo. I think requests of this nature--unusual, but harmless--are often well-received if made in person, so I am optimistic.

    Cheers!
    Alan

    PS: Where are my manners? Please say 'hello' to Bow for me.

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