Policing is Monkey Business, Scientists Discover

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Special individuals capable of impartially resolving disputes and using force to maintain order when necessary help keep monkey communities from collapsing in chaos, just as LEOs do in human society, researchers are discovering.

“It seems clear that among more highly developed animals, Nature considers policing to be an absolutely essential element in protecting a given society’s well being,” observes Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

The monkey findings come from a team of scientists headed by Dr. Jessica Flack of the Santa Fe Institute, a private, not-for-profit research organization based in New Mexico. Her group experimented with 84 Asian monkeys called pigtailed macaques at a research facility in Georgia.

Among the monkeys, a small coterie of high-ranking individuals, 3 males and 1 female, appeared to be acting essentially as the group’s police. Unlike dominant (alpha) members of many animal groups, these 4 not only received deference from other monkeys and defended their own interests but also intervened “to break up conflicts between lower-ranking individuals in an apparently disinterested way.”

This included imposing themselves between combatants to stop fights and threatening all disputants simultaneously, without showing partiality.

To study the value of such “policing,” Flack’s group removed 3 of the cops for 10 hours on a randomly chosen day once every 2 weeks. Result: the social network that held the monkey troop together quickly broke down.

The monkeys spent less time peacefully interacting by grooming, sitting together, and playing with each other and divided instead into small, disruptive cliques. Significantly, the number of aggressive incidents increased.

Flack concludes that thanks to the policing role, individual monkeys can socialize widely with little risk and a larger troop can stay together, since the “cops” will intervene if things start to get out of hand. “Through their stabilizing presence and active peacekeeping, they contribute to a more cooperative society,” she says.

She believes that the police monkeys themselves derive some benefit from helping sustain a larger community, including (for the males) access to more females.

In drawing human comparisons, let’s not even go there!

[Thanks to Wayne Schmidt, executive director of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, for alerting us to this study. A synopsis of Flack’s research is available in The Economist magazine for 1/26/06. The full report is available for a fee in the journal Nature at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v439/n7075/abs/nature04326.html]

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