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Prince Kropotkin's Ghost

Melanie Killen, Marina Cords

Primate Peacemaking

What specifically have the primatologists shown? Beginning with essentially chance observations in the 1970s of chimpanzee opponents exchanging hugs, kisses and other gestures of apparently reconciliatory friendliness after a squabble, primatologists led by Frans de Waal of Emory University expanded the study of conflict management by conducting systematic observations of the events that follow outbursts of aggression.

These workers found that former opponents regularly seek each other out for some kind of friendly encounter within minutes after a battle. Careful observation and experiment has revealed how these reunions restore amicable relations and reduce the anxiety that rivals typically feel in the aftermath of a fight. These studies have also shown that primates have many ways to prevent aggressive conflict or to minimize its effects. Like people, these animals may adopt conventions of various sorts to avert disputes even before they erupt. In many primate species, one powerful individual in a group takes precedence, by convention, over others at a feeding site: A subordinate will simply get up and leave—without protest—when the dominant member approaches. In other situations, the applicable rule is "finders keepers." If a subordinate can carry a desirable object, he can keep it unchallenged by more powerful members of his group.

Thus this research has highlighted the varied mechanisms primates have for maintaining relative peace within their ranks. This work has also stimulated the examination of similar peacemaking skills in our own species. Developmental psychologists, becoming aware of reports about our closest relatives, monkeys and apes, began to pay more attention to reconciliatory reunions after conflict and, not surprisingly, found the same phenomenon in schoolchildren. For example, in a cross-cultural comparison of Russian, U.S., Italian, Swedish and Kalmyk children, Marina Butovskaya and her coworkers at the Russian State University for Humanities in Moscow recently showed that youngsters are capable of a wide range of postconflict peacemaking. They may, for example, offer to share or hug, chant reconciliatory rhymes or involve third parties to mediate their differences.

These results have come as no surprise to primatologists, who already have abandoned their simplistic preconceptions about the sorts of aggressive "instincts" Lorenz had made famous. Perhaps it's time for others to open their minds as well and to rethink just how applicable Lorenz's view is to people.

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