Were chimps the first socialists?

Even Machiavelli and Warwick the Kingmaker could have learnt a thing or two from apes. Matt Ridley e

In capitalist countries people gain power because they are rich; in socialist countries people get rich because they are powerful. That is almost the defining difference between the two systems. The more a nation allows people to buy their way into influence, the more capitalist it is; the more it allows those with political influence to reward themselves with privileges, the more socialist it is - at least socialist as it has largely turned out in practice, if not in theory.

In this narrow sense, chimpanzee society is socialist. It has no concept of wealth, but great privileges, chiefly sexual ones, accrue mainly to those individuals that are good at seeking power.

Science specialises in blows to human self-esteem. It dethroned our planet from the centre of the solar system. It toppled our species from the apex of creation and it is now debunking the idea that we invented society. We did not - we inherited it from our ancestors.

Before Jane Goodall and other pioneers studied the behaviour of great apes in the wild, most people believed that human society was unique. Indeed, social theorists such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Engels had all imagined a state of nature in which people lived before society had been invented. Even John Rawls in this century asks us to imagine how human beings would "come together" to create an ordered society.

Now we know that there was no state of nature before society, because the pre-human species from which we descend must also have been social. We were social before we were human. The chimpanzee, our 98.5 per cent-identical genetic relative, has a sophisticated set of social rules and habits, as do the more distantly related gorilla and orang-utan, and the still more distant monkeys. As virtually all primates have complicated social rules, the common ancestor of humans and chimps, which lived more than five million years ago, must surely have had them, too. Human beings may be uniquely self-conscious, but they did not start with social blank slates.

Indeed, chimpanzee society can often seem remarkably like human society. Males compete for dominance and dispense patronage; females build networks and smooth their sons' paths to power. Chimpanzee fights are not usually won, as are monkey fights, by brute force, but by coalitions. So the "alpha" male may not be the strongest so much as the one who is best at making helpful friends.

In the Mahale mountains of Tanzania, for example, there lives an alpha male chimp named Ntogi. He shares the monkey meat he catches not only with his mother and his girlfriends, but also with older, middle-ranking males. He never gives meat to younger males or to his most senior rivals. Like a good student of Machiavelli, he cultivates his most reliable but least threatening constituents, who in turn help him to stay in power.

The career of another male, named Yeroen, in a chimpanzee colony at Arnhem zoo, reminded me forcibly when I first read about it of the wars of the roses. Just as Warwick the Kingmaker kept shifting his support between the houses of York and Lancaster, so Yeroen alternated between two younger males, Luit and Nikkie, to ensure that neither held the top job for long. As soon as one felt secure enough to interfere with Yeroen's privileges - principally his right to have frequent sex with females in the troop - Yeroen would switch allegiance and begin building up the other.

So human do these conflicts seem that Frans de Waal's book on the Arnhem chimps is called Chimpanzee Politics. The swagger and the paranoia of an alpha male chimpanzee - often the first to wake in the morning, often tempted into almost hysterical demonstrations of confidence and power - are immediately familiar to anybody who knows office politics. So, too, is the fundamental difference in approach of the two sexes. Males compete for rank with other males; females compete less frenziedly with other females. But on the whole males do not compete with females. This separation and difference has a very obvious cause. The chief reward of rising high in the male hierarchy is sexual success, so the male attitude to females is lustful, not competitive.

I believe this partly accounts for the exasperation and bewilderment that many women feel in companies or committees where men spend more time fighting each other over petty indications of rank than fighting rival firms. Such rivalry is just not so important to women as it is to men. Equally, accusations of sexism bewilder the men - because when they are thinking of how to defeat rival men or how to enlist support, they do not even notice women.

In many workplaces, men do get ahead faster than women, not because of their ability but because of their ambition. Equally, when a woman reaches the top, she can often achieve rather more than men do because she is not so obsessed with watching her own back and because the men beneath her are not so obsessed with replacing her. This is not to imply that women have no competitive instincts - sometimes female bosses don't want to promote other women. The point is that each sex feels instinctively that its main competition comes from within its own sex, as indeed it did in the Stone Age.

When it comes to sex itself, however, chimpanzees are no guide at all. At some time in the past five million years, the two species diverged dramatically. Human beings became increasingly, though not totally, monogamous. The pair bond became longer, more exclusive and more mutually dependent, as reflected in the sexual division of labour, which is universal in hunter-gathering people: men hunt and women gather. Both sexes began to concentrate on quality rather than quantity when choosing a mate.

Chimpanzees, by contrast, have become more promiscuous, with shorter and shorter pair bonds and less involvement of the father in rearing the young. Females seem to try to share their sexual favours widely within the troop, almost certainly so that the issue of paternity is blurred. This habit probably evolved because it prevented ambitious new alphas from doing a Herod and murdering all the babies to bring females back into oestrus - as happens with gorillas and various monkeys.

The other big social difference between ourselves and chimpanzees is that we have a flatter male-dominance hierarchy. There is no easily defined equivalent of the alpha male in human societies (and, among chimpanzees, the alpha male, with a continual need to cultivate supporters, is less of an autocrat than he is among gorillas and monkeys). Hunter-gatherer people are often markedly reluctant to admit that any one man is the chief and are quick to puncture the conceit of anybody who claims too much power. Instead, they recognise different leaders for different roles - as we often do in urban society. Humans commonly split power between chief executive and chairman, or between prime minister and monarch. There is a streak of egalitarianism buried deep in the human psyche.

Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that we can thank the invention of throwing weapons. If a chimpanzee wants to topple an alpha male, he must fight him in unarmed combat, at considerable risk of injury. Humans can make do with a well- aimed rock, arrow or bullet. Not for nothing were guns known in Damon Runyon's America as "equalisers".

The biggest social difference between human beings and chimpanzees is economics. Human economics is all about exchange - of goods, services, information, currencies. This exchange is almost the defining feature of a human society. Power in most societies is largely acquired through wealth, which in turn is acquired through profitable exchange.

Chimpanzees have no divisions of labour. They exchange favours - they literally scratch each other's backs - but this is not the same as exchanging one thing for a different thing. So there is no chimpanzee equivalent of wealth or capital; there is only social capital or power, achieved by the best manipulator of alliances and cabals.

That is why I say that chimpanzees are fundamentally like socialists. In the most purely socialist societies, government takes precedence over trade. Where capitalists compete over market share, socialists compete directly over power itself.

I do not want to stretch the analogy too far, because chimpanzees are not the same as human beings. But chimpanzee society does give us a glimpse of what human society would be like without economics.

Matt Ridley is the author of "The Origins of Virtue" (Penguin) and "Genome: the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters" (Fourth Estate)