Wall Street, Bananas, and Warlike Chimpanzees

Still thinking about yesterday’s post on how Open is Dead, I took a short trip down to Wall Street today to check out and participate briefly in Occupy Wall Street. While I was there, I was reminded of this passage from the book Sex at Dawn (excellent book, a must-read). The passage is about Jane Goodall’s research with the (supposedly) warlike chimpanzees in Africa.

(Margaret) Power noticed that data Goodall collected in her first years at Gombe (from 1961 to 1965) painted a different picture of chimpanzee social interaction than the accounts of chimpanzee warfare she and her colleagues published to global acclaim a few years later. Observations from those first four years at Gombe had left Goodall with the impression that chimps were “far more peaceable than humans.” She saw no evidence of “war” between groups and only sporadic outbreaks of violence between individuals.

But Goodall’s impression of relative harmony was to change — not coincidentally, argues Power — precisely when she and her students began giving the chimps hundreds of bananas every day, to entice them to hang around the camp so they could be observed more easily.

In the wild, chimps spread out to search for food individually or in small groups. Because the food is scattered throughout the jungle, competition is unusual. But, as Frans de Waal explains, “as soon as humans start providing food, even in the jungle, the peace is quickly disturbed.”

Before the scientists started provisioning the apes, food appeared throughout the jungle, so the chimps spread out in search of something to eat each day. Chimps often call out to the others when they find a fruiting tree; mutual aid helps everyone and feeding in the forest isn’t a zero-sum endeavor. But once they learned that there would be a limited amount of easy food available in the same place each day, more and more chimps started arriving in aggressive, “noisy hordes”, and “hanging around”. Soon after, Goodall and her students began witnessing the now famous “warfare” between chimp groups.

Perhaps for the first time ever, the chimps had something worth fighting over: a concentrated, reliable, yet limited source of food. Suddenly, they lived in a zero-sum world.

OMG. It was the bananas that made the chimps warlike.

I feel like we’re all just chimps, hanging out in noisy hordes trying to get the bananas out of the box. And yeah, we’re warlike, because hell, there’s bananas in those boxes.

The people who work on Wall Street have found a way to get more bananas out than everyone else. And it’s gotten so bad that everyone else is now protesting for a fairer distribution of bananas.

But regardless of who gets what number of bananas, it’s still a zero-sum game we’re playing. One more banana for me means one less banana for you.

The question we should be asking ourselves right now is not just who should get what number of bananas, but how do we make it not a zero-sum game? How do we create a system where my helping you get bananas results in me getting more bananas too?

That’s where need to go with this whole Occupy Wall Street thing. Not to a different division of bananas — that would just be retreading old ground — but to a different way of thinking about bananas and banana gathering entirely.

It’s a much tougher thing to figure out of course than just deciding how to split things up.

Will it get there? I don’t know.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

So…I guess the Marxian conclusion was that given the limited resources, the fight ensues when people are allowed to get as many bananas as they can…and that they aren’t naturally inclined to share.

Ergo: we need a central source to ration equitably.

But that doesn’t work either (as we’ve learned).

What’s the best model that strikes the balance between those two poles? Is there a (likely northern European) country that models it? If so, how can we replicate?