Believing is Seeing: John Livingston's Rogue Primate

by Dan Bartlett, April 2006

Civilised humans are very fond of creating their own history. It is an essential safety mechanism which prevents us from having to deal with our recent past, which resembles something of a global bloodbath where those with more land and power killed or enslaved those with not so much. The creation of history keeps us all from going completely insane. However, we create something far more potent everyday; our reality, or our world view. One integral aspect of our cultural conditioning which is commonly overlooked is our view of other life around us, Nature. This page is a largely a summary of the key parts of Rogue Primate by John Livingston, particularly the chapter "Nature's Marketplace", and some of "Other Selves".

Our view of Nature is far more significant than it would seem. It is more than a view of how life around us functions; it is a philosophy on how life itself works, and how we humans fit into the cosmos. Our perspective concerning the other life on this Planet does not merely raise its head in discussions regarding the environment and animal politics; it permeates our ideologies on what it means to be alive, and what it is to be human. It is the Human Manifesto.

Nature is "the other", a much deeper concept that is characteristic, and a symptom, of our strange isolation. Although we constantly insist on Nature being instable and a constant struggle, it is our way of life that is lacking and instable. While natural integrated living prospered for millions of years, our fragmented and isolated way of living has lasted a mere 10,000 years and now it's about to crash in on itself. We scramble up the job ladder on our own, drive our cars on our own, earn money on our own, buy our own possessions and earn our own living, and then point to Nature as lacking meaning and completeness.

Through the past few thousand years, quite a few blows have been dealt to our superiority complex. A good example was when it was discovered that the Earth was not at the center of the Universe - we are in fact part of a group of planets that orbit a star. While more and more discoveries threatened to topple the civilised ego, none had quite the bite of evolution theory. Evolution said that humans had evolved alongside every other animal, and that we were not heaven-sent to own this planet. This ruffled quite a few feathers, but it also created an opportunity for someone to explain how evolution works, in a way that would keep all our feathers nice and tidy. Charles Darwin's "survival of the fittest" (natural selection) not only offered a seemingly reasonable explanation of how evolution worked; it healed civilised ego, and created an ideology that justified and glorified the Empire.

After several thousand years of intense forest, topsoil and ecosystem destruction, intercontinental warfare, genocide and slavery, we finally had an answer that was even better than thinking we were God-sent; we have competed alongside every other animal and won, and what's more, it was natural because evolution works by natural selection. Darwin's ideas on competition and natural selection were so widely accepted because, as Livingston says, he "offered an image of the organic world wholly in keeping with the dominant ideological prosthesis of his day". Competition theory justified the very exploitation which the Victorian empire/culture of the time was based on. The monoculture literally spoke through Darwin.

Darwin's ideas on competition, while obviously influencing most branches of animal behavioural studies, have also remained deeply ingrained within our cultural perspectives, through more subtle means. I do not believe Darwin was particularly special in his ideas on competition and the day to day struggle in Nature. What I mean is, if he hadn't introduced it to the mainstream, someone else would have; you could see it coming. At that stage in a decaying empire, it is almost necessary to have such ideas - trying to look back on history through any other lense would probably cause the viewer to be emotionally ruined. I do not wish to paint Darwin as a bad person because he was not. He was no doubt a man in love with Nature, and he did at times wonder about the repercussions of his competitive theory. As Livingston noted, the "soul" of Darwin, the moving passages which reveal a spiritual connection with Nature, did not fit in with dominant ideology, and so have been forgotten.

The linear view of life and the notion of "progress" that evolved from the beginnings of civilisation are echoed particularly clearly in passages of the Origin of Species:

"[..] more recent forms must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms… I do not doubt that this process of improvement has affected in a marked and sensible manner the organisation of the more recent and victorious forms of life, in comparison with the ancient and beaten forms…"

This is not Nature, it is Empire.

Let's delve into how we view animal behaviour so things become a little clearer. It's all very well to attribute "competition" to most animal behaviour (particularly heavily studied highly social animals such as chimps) but why? What do I mean, why? Well, why are they competing? Sounds like a weird question at first, and it gives the same mystified reaction as questioning why we have to "progress". Competition cannot be proved in other beings because it is not something we can confirm from a subjective standpoint. Competition, like dominance and rank, is a way of seeing things, a concept, and as with any perspective, it will be heavily influenced by how the viewer feels about what he/she is seeing, and how it relates to them. Considering that civilisation is built upon competition, hierarchy and material progress, it's not hard to understand why most people see what they think they see when they observe other animals.

Following Livingston, let's look at the concept of "pecking order" to demonstrate an example in which competition doesn't make sense. When barnyard chickens are fed, anyone will notice that there is often an order in which they feed, and that this order remains relatively unchanged through time. Observing this order, we can usually see a chicken that is at the "top" of the order; "Alpha". Alpha feeds first, and if someone else tries to grab a mouthful before Alpha is done, they will usually get threatened or pecked. This nearly always results in the "lower ranking" chicken backing down - what is known as "deferring". It also easy enough to see that if Alpha is removed from the group, someone else will immediately jump into Alpha's position. Most scientists call this "status seeking", and use it to explain individual actions within groups. Ironically, most also deny that animals have any kind of self-awareness. How can you seek status without any kind of awareness through which to judge when a certain status has been achieved? This is usually shrugged off, with some mumbling along the lines of "..economic.. order..."

Does it not make sense to have an order when food resources are either 1) scarce, or 2) concentrated in one location? When I get home and sit down for tea, we take turns to dish up food; we don't all dive headfirst into the food at the same time because that's stupid. This isn't because of some "human dignity"; it's common sense. While it's easy to see competition in a pecking order, it makes much more sense to see a cooperative order that most chickens are quite content to be part of. When one chicken tries to break the order, he/she is warned with a peck/threat and then he falls back into the order. This order is efficient and it works.

It's clear that this social arrangement is important for barnyard chickens - removing birds frequently disrupts this careful order, and puts them off their food: "Familiarity confers stability to the order of precedence, and all individuals are the better for it". Competition seems to be the only explanation when resources are scarce, but again, it does not take much thought to see that the "strongest" are simply getting the food so that they can reproduce and bring up healthy offspring to continue the existence of the group - to further the communal self of the species/group. Trying to feed everyone when there are not enough resources leads to no-one getting enough, which will eventually leads to the group dieing out. Consumption of scare resources by only a few of the group makes perfect communal sense.

We find this hard to understand because we have a morbid obsession with the "value" of life and the individual's "right" to it. We see nothing beyond the individual because we have lost our communal self, our expanded awareness. Modern philosophy talks endlessly of the individual, but nothing of the way in which communities create, shape and mother them.

Also of note is that "pecking orders" play a far smaller (or non-existent) role when food is abundant and dispersed widely. This again is common sense - what's the point of having some order when everyone can just eat right now? Natural orders are simple, effective solutions when negative factors such as limited resources, or crowding are present. Competing for limited resources, with a bloated population, in crowded conditions is characteristic of only one species - us - and look where we are now. Only civilised humans pursue relentless growth regardless of all other life, and it's only us who have depleted the worlds resources and diversity to such dangerous levels.

Our insistence on the hostility of Nature has even spread to plants, who, we are told, are opportunists, battling for resources and expanding to dominate as much land as possible. Anyone with any understanding of Nature can see that the natural plant growth cycles are self-supporting, and that each cycle prepares the land for the next. Kötke explains how this works after logging or a forest fire:

"After a severe forest fire, or to recover from the injury of clearcut logging, the forest organism slowly heals the wound by inhabiting the area with a succession of plant communities. Each succeeding community prepares the area for the next community. In general terms, an evergreen forest wound will be covered by tough small plants, popularly called "weeds" and the grasses which hold down the topsoil and prepare the way for other grasses and woody shrubs to grow up on the wound. ("Weeds" are the "first aid crew" on open ground.) As a general rule, the "first aid crew" - the first community of plants to get in and cover the bare soil and hold it down - is the more simple plant community with the smallest number of species of plants, animals, insects, micro-organisms and so forth. As the succession proceeds, the diversity, the number of species, increases as does the NPP [Net Photosynthetic Production], until the climax system is reached again, and equilibrium is established.

The system drives toward complexity of form, maximum ability to translate incoming energy (NPP) and diversity of energy pathways (food chains and other services that plants and animals perform for one another). The plants will hold the soil so that it may be built back up. They will shade the soil to prevent its oxidation (the heating and drying of soil promotes chemical changes that cause sterility) and conserve moisture. Each plant takes up different combinations of nutrients from the soil so that specific succession communities prepare specific soil nutrients for specific plant communities that will succeed them. Following the preparation of the site by these plants, larger plants, alders and other broadleaf trees will come in and their lives and deaths will further prepare the micro-climate and soil for the evergreens. These trees function as "nurse" trees for the final climax community, which will be conifers. Seedling Douglas Fir for example, cannot grow in sunlight and must have shade provided by these forerunner communities."

Most of our false assumptions about Nature evidently do not come from pecking orders and plants (although the fundamentals are clear in both); primates have been studied extensively since it was discovered that they are our closest living relatives. (I'm going with Livingston's examples again here) Gorillas live in small groups of several females and young, with around 1-3 male silverbacks. If there is more than one silverback, as there often is, one can usually observe an "Alpha".

While most observers predictably attribute competition as a prerequisite for obtaining "Alpha" status, this doesn't seem to be the case. Males can "drift" into the role, maybe just because they are the right gender/age/size. Maybe they did "earn" it, but they didn't compete for it. Social organisation needs certain characters at certain times. Our concept of "Alphas" seem to be a wide range of roles which form necessary cohesive elements in most social webs. They are there because they are great for the job! Sometimes, we become so plagued in our self-righteous notions of equality that we forget places and roles which some characters are good at, and some aren't. This is why we have communities and societies! We come together to create something bigger than sum of its parts. Competition theory robs us of community and individual meaning by relegating all behaviour to status seeking competition. It says that if there are roles, they are set out on a linear hierarchy which beings have to compete for space on. This is how Empires operate, it is not how life functions.

To further clarify how primate groups function on something much deeper than competition, Livingston recalls the several days he spent observing south Asian grey langurs - long tail forest monkeys in which male hierarchical dominance is said to be the norm. I'm quoting in full here to do the excerpt justice:

"The troop consisted of about 25 members, of which three were highly visible adult males. These three communicated with one another noisily and vigorously, and pretty well continuously. During rare periods of silence, as when their mouths were stuffed, they would still keep watching one another. Then they would resume their mutual grimacing and chattering, and occasional chasing. These, by the book, were the "Alphas" of the troop.

Much more interesting than the behaviour of these adult males, however, was that of the rest of the group. Whatever they might have been doing at any given moment - eating, grooming, feeding young, resting, playing - they rarely took their eyes off those three males for more than a few seconds at a time. When the males became a little more vociferous or demonstrative than usual, everthing else would be stopped instantly, and every member of the larger group watched fixedly, looking at each male in turn, with total attention.

All at once, I experienced a serendipitous moment. It appeared to me that these interactions between the three adult males were generating some form of magnetic attraction which just might be a necessary element in holding not only everybody's attention but the cohesiveness of the whole group. On this view, the Alpha males, so called, are not at the top rung of a hierarchical ladder; they are at the core of an encapsulating envelope around the social group. They did not have to strive or struggle for this role; like the silverback gorilla they merely happened to be the right gender and age as required in grey langur society to be the focus of attraction and organization."

Again, we can see that "Alpha" is one part of a network, and a bloody battle was not required to achieve such a role. It should be stressed here that social organisations are often extremely complicated, often beyond our comprehension, and vary enormously between species, and even different types of the same species, depending on their environment and characteristics. Returning to the grey langurs, Livingston continues:

"This view suggests that the structure of the society is not linear but spherical. The group is a cell, not a pyramid, and the interacting males adult males are at its nucleus. They are not themselves the nucleus; they are at the nucleus. Their energetic activity creates and maintains a central attraction for the group entity as a whole. That energetic "magnetism" is essential to the cohesion of the group, and it is the males' job to produce it. On the view, the social structure is built not on dominance and subservience, but on a dynamic of mutuality - a positive force analogous to whatever it is that keeps the individual atom or solar system from flying apart.

Over the several days in which I was able to watch these grey lampurs, I did not see a sign of hostility between the males. There was plenty of wild and intemperate screeching and hollering, plenty of face making, and some sporadic chasing, always without catching, but no aggression, and no competition and no striving for dominance. This is not to say that fights do not occur between individuals because they do. Also, male grey langurs at least occassionaly practise infantcide. Both have been part of the human primate story forever."

When we study animal behaviour without immediately seeing what we want to believe, we can see how cooperation plays a much larger role in life than we have come to believe. Where we do see dominating aggression, people like Thelma Rowell have explained it as a pathological condition. The suggested causes of such conditions are crowding, food shortage, sickness, sudden environmental disruption and sometimes the presence of a human observer. These are signs that climax ecosystem is not in place; symptoms of an out of balance system trying to grow in a balanced reality.

People claim that social groups of many animals are held in place by hierarchical domination, but they remain relatively stable because most of the "underdogs" are perfectly happy in their role - many never make challenges for "Alpha" position, and if they do they are usually reminded of their role through mild intimidation. Unlike Empire where roles are decided by economic competition, most beings in natural social groups fall straight into their most useful positions; "useful" in this sense meaning integratedness, value to the community, as opposed to Empire language where "useful" usually means efficient producer.

Natural social orders often actually prevent aggression and fighting because the individuals are already aware of what is acceptable and what is not within the group. We do however see more aggression when we observe animals that are not living in their natural habitats, and this is not surprising. Rowell's studies of African baboons (1967) in captivity and in the wild is particularly revealing: "the rates at which certain behaviors occurred differed dramatically. Specifically, she found that rates of all social interactions were four times higher in captivity than in the wild, and that rates of aggression were eight times higher in captivity." We often crowd animals in limited synthetic environments and then wonder why they show signs of aggression and violence. The answer is simple - you cannot crowd socially cooperative animals. All natural order breaks down in such situations, and outbreaks of violence are usually inevitable. Humans were the first beings to crowd themselves into cities, and look how violent our society is.

There is one final aspect of animal behavioural studies that Livingston touches on, and it is the idea of territoriality. The mainstream ideas surrounding "territory" are perhaps our most obviously culturally influenced concepts of "how Nature works". Territoriality says that animals compete for ownership over areas of land so that they can use its resources and space to survive and bring up their young. Territory can be defined simply as an area that will be defended against others of the same species. When a group of merecats moves into another groups territory, they will be driven out aggressively. The closer to the centre of the territory, the more violent and unrelenting the attack will be. Songbirds circulate around their territory, singing to make it known where the borders of their territory are. Animals have a variety of different methods for communicating the borders of their area. Land means potential to bring up young, and so females will mate with birds that have a set area of territory.

It seems bizarre to suggest that a bird would want territory for competitive status, or for the ownership of property. Ownership is a distinctly civilised concept that came into being when we stopped moving, and started agriculture. Because we made surplus, it became necessary for us to claim "ownership" over that piece of land in order to protect our investment. A bird has no such concern. When a songbird enters anothers' territory, the resident rushes to warn him off. This is confrontation leading to a co-operative result - two songbirds trying to raise young in a confined area will result in resources being split between two nests, andneither will get adequate amounts to raise a healthy new generation. The intruder always backs down - this is "Sorry, my mistake, I'll find somewhere else", not "Invasion!" This is not proprietary competition, it is compliance. When the roles are reversed, the same results are produced. Even "compliance" makes it sound a little too organised:

"Perhaps the chasing interactions we observe between breeding birds are no more than exercises - dare I say games - which serve the individual needs of both participants. [...] Dogs and antelopes and eagles and geese and monkeys and people play chasing games. Why not songbirds? Incidentally, songbirds such as cardinals also chase in the wintertime. The azimuth of the sun being what it is in January, we can be fairly certain they are not driven to aggressive competition by stirring gonads. Red squirrels also chase on the bright sunlit snow."

The splitting of areas between members of the same species is not about competition and ownership; it is a simple method of making sure certain areas aren't flooded with animals that have the same requirements. Such an influx would rapidly decrease the surrounding food and space, which would affect the birds, and the surrounding ecosystems. The plants and animals that rely on services provided by the birds would suffer due to the concentration in one area, and the services that the birds provide would only reach a small concentrated area.

Where certain areas are perfect for a species, there will be smaller nest-centered areas because abundant resources mean less space is needed. In areas devoid of resources, each member of the species will spaced further apart. Livingston provides the perfect image of an animal's personal space being it's seasonably adjusted self. Through this perspective, we see the animal literally expanding his existence, his self, over a certain area in order to rear new life. He temporarily becomes the land in order to harvest its fruits, resulting in new life.

"Let us see the singing cardinal in the springtime as surrounded not by staked-out physical turf but rather (following Evernden) by a kind of invisible osmotic membrane encapsulating his temporarily extended being. […] The bird himself has become a community of existences, and at the instant when he sings, the momentary (once only) event of that song is numinous. [...] The numen arises from the mutuality or the complementariness of the bird and his co-participants."

We have created a story about Nature that has no meaning. This story supported our way of life for quite some time, but people see that the story just isn't holding up anymore. Livingston notes that it is largely due to the work of a number female primatoligists/naturalists that we have begun to break free of our rigid Darwinian constraints and see animals as sentient beings with feeling and meaning. When you discover such things, you can no longer keep up a story of life that is based upon rigid competition. Co-operation has also been present at every step in the dance.

Life moves towards greater diversity, with ever growing inter- and intra-linked webs of dependence. In Final Empire, William Kötke draws on evidence which shows how far Nature diversifies to provide for all life:

"Ecologist Robert MacArthur did a study of five species of warblers, all about the same size, all occupying the same territory and all eating the same food - spruce bud worms. He discovered that their niches were so finely and cooperatively tuned that each species predominantly used a different portion of the tree for their feeding. That is, one species would go to the top portion of the tree; another would concentrate on the base of the tree, another one quarter of the way from the top and so forth. These finely tuned niches exist throughout nature."

Our warped mythology thinks that strongest means the victors - us. Despite the fact that we've brought the world through the biggest global extinction, stripped the Earth of its resources and a great number of us are too ill to realise it. Strength, not surprisingly in our uber-yang society, is associated purely with action and expansion. True strength is learning to integrate yourself within a community - boosting your survival (life) odds and contributing to the magic all around you.

We are part of a group of species that are known as "socially cooperative". We used to travel in groups - this is how we survive, through social structures and cooperation. People are scared of "going back" and learning to survive in the natural world, but we are incredibly adept at cooperation and adaptation. We will re-enter the cosmic tensions and interactions of Nature, but not in the way we see most animals living, because our cultural facilities are so massively developed compared to other beings. We can keep our populations stable through our own actions, whilst at the same time building diversity around ourselves to heal the wounds we have inflicted. This is not to say we escape, and other animals are left in it - we (civilised) are just different. We are but one part of a much larger organism which we have recently lost touch with.

Note 1: Rogue Primate is highly recommended, and very well written.

Note 2: I wanted to include a critique of mechanistic evolution itself, but this post is already big enough and it's not essential. I may include it when I put all these posts together and add some more stuff. For now, read Rupert Sheldrake!

Note 3: I also wanted to write some stuff about Bonobos, but for now, read this!