High status among chimpanzees and gorillas does not depend only on physical dominance. It also depends on an individual's ability to prevent fights among other group members, to mediate conflicts, to initiate reconciliations, and to punish transgressors. Frans de Waal observed that one of the chimpanzees in Arnhem Zoo named Yeroen sustained his high status late into life by being good at this sort of moral leadership. Yeroen had the social intelligence to notice when trouble was developing between group members, and the social skills to intervene in just the right way to defuse tension and maintain group harmony. He was remarkably impartial, not allowing his own social relationship and consort-ships to bias his peacekeeping. Other individual males could beat Yeroen in a fight, but his high status was maintained through popular support and respect.
Chimpanzees have apparently transformed the ancient tradition of primate dominance hierarchies into a status system based on moral leadership. We used to imagine that this was a distinctively human achievement, but it is not. If chimpanzees and gorillas respect peace-keeping and policing ability, and modern humans do too, then it is likely that our common ancestor five million years ago did as well. Status based on moral leadership is a legacy of the great apes. For at least five million years, our ancestors have been striving to attain status through their moral leadership, rather than just through their physical strength.
But what exactly does "high status" mean? In primates, it generally brings greater reproductive success, which depends on greater sexual attractiveness. Status is not a piece of territory that can be taken by force. It must be granted by others, based on their likes and their dislikes, their respect and their disrespect. "Status" is a statistical abstraction across the social and sexual preferences of the members of one's group. If our ancestors attained high status through moral leadership, that meant moral leadership was socially and sexually attractive. It was favored by social choice and sexual choice. Because sexual choices have so much more evolutionary power than social choices about friends, grooming partners, and food-sharers, we come to this conclusion: moral leadership evolved through sexual choice in both chimpanzees and humans.
Leadership is like hunting in this respect: it provides a common good that looks purely altruistic until one considers the behavior's sexual attractiveness. Sexual selection could have favored the opposite of moral leadership, but that preference would tend to go extinct along with its tense, bickering, exhausted groups. One could imagine a primate species in which females happened to develop a runaway sexual preference for hair-trigger psychopaths who randomly pick fights. Males could obligingly evolve into violent bullies. But groups playing that psychopathic equilibrium would go extinct in competition with efficient, peaceful groups playing the good-leadership equilibrium. As with hunting versus club-fighting, this is an example of equilibrium selection. It is not an example of the discredited group selection process in which individuals pay an individual cost for a common benefit. The sexual rewards of moral leadership mean that good leaders obtain a net individual benefit from behavior that provides for the common good.
Where chimpanzees evolved moral leadership, humans evolved the more advanced capacity of moral vision, including the passionate articulation of social ideals concerning justice, freedom, and equality. Moral vision is sexually attractive, and may have been generated by sexual selection. It takes the impartiality of the peacekeeping primate to a more conscious, principled level. In discussing such an important human capacity, we must be especially careful to distinguish evolutionary function from human motivation. When Malcolm X used his verbal genius and moral charisma to forge a vision of a Muslim society free of racism, he was motivated by moral instincts, not "sexual instincts." His moral instincts happened to attract a beautiful young woman named Betty Shabazz to become his wife, as they had evolved to do through sexual selection. Likewise for Martin Luther, whose Protestant vision attracted the ex-nun Katharina von Bora to marry him and raise six children. The peacock's tail is no less beautiful when we understand its sexual function. Nor should the validity of human moral vision be reduced when we understand its origin in sexual choice.
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