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The Games Primates Play

Dario Maestripieri

Primates have dominance and submission routines. Chimps do it with grooming.Subordinate approaches dominant chimp, gives couple tentative smile/grimaces then grooms for a long time, putting a lot of effort into it. Dominant may respond with occasional perfunctory strokes, but asymmetry. Humans do same with emails - teacher/student or boss/employee. You can see chimps trying to improve their social status by befriending more powerful. Similarly, emails reveal your status in company -if you're getting terse replies or none at all, you're unlikely to be headed for promotion.

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Dominance status can be resolved by fighting, but that obviously has costs. So once dominance sorted out, the subordinate always gives way.

But problems with adolescents. Babies start out controlling parents by crying, but once they acquire language, parents expect them to shut up when they are told. Teens challenge parents and family has to find a new balance. Some parents ease off the authority, some parents lose control altogether and kid becomes dominant. And in some it is never resolved, and fight for rest of their lives.

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In marriage have same issue - who is in charge? If neither individual is prepared to take a subordinate role, there is continuous fighting and/or negotiating, which inevitably takes it's toll.

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Apocryphal anecdote abt two new employees at Microsoft. One was a hard worker who took on all the jobs others refused, hoping that her diligence wd be noticed and rewarded. The other was a skilled politician. She went out of her way to meet and charm each employee in her circle, finding things they had in common (first impressions matter). And, at the meetings, she figured out the power and influence dynamics of her group - who was important, who was a potential ally or enemy, who was going up.

Coral reef cleaner fish are tempted to exploit their clients by taking a nip of (much more nutritious)flesh while they are supposed to be chewing on parasites and dead skin. Obvious when it happens, because victim make an "Ouch" jolt. Clients don't have any personal experience of individual cleaners, so they choose on basis of reputation - they watch the cleaners working on other fish and approach the ones who haven't inflicted tell-tale jolts. But the cleaners have figured out how to cheat the system. They behave themselves with smaller fish which don't have fleshy mouth tissue, then exploit the bigger fish.

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Most primates don't pair-bond. Dad comes along for the sex, then disappears, and mum raises the kids. The only exceptions are species where kids wouldn't survive. Tamarins give birth to twins, but mother not strong enough to carry both around. If father didn't stay, kids wouldn't last a week. So tamarins pair-bond. (Shown by mate-guarding and separation distress as well as obvious just simply being there.) And of course humans - single mothers can successfully raise kids, but they do best when have dad around as well.

But the problem that human pair-bonding is probably evolutionarily recent. We have probably evolved from chimp ancestor males who were sexually promiscuous and who didn't stick around to help. But because human society is so complex and competitive, there was strong evo pressure to come up with a way to get males to bond.

Natural selection rarely invents from scratch. Usually it modifies or rearranges existing structures. Mechanism for ensuring maternal care already there, so just a matter of extending mother-child emotions to husband-wife setup.

Author once saw a slide of researcher holding chimp brain in one hand, and a testicle in the other. They were both about the same size, and not because the chimp has a small brain.

In ancient Rome, two men taking an oath of allegiance held each other's testicles as a sign of mutual trust and truthfulness while publicly bearing witness, hence the word "testify" (possibly).

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