Gorillas know the rules to tag

A letter concerning gorilla behavior was printed in the in the Biology Letters of the Royal Society (open access at least through Saturday), entitled “Responding to inequities: gorillas try to maintain their competitive advantage during play fights,” by Edwin Van Leeuwen of the Department of Social and Organizational Psychology, Free University of Amsterdam and two others, discusses a study of films of captive gorilla play behavior from six zoos. The encounters they studied were, as far as can be learned from the letter, exactly like games of tag played by human children.

They studied films of 86 “play chase bouts,” as they call them, involving 21 individual gorillas. The chases were started by an agressive move by one gorilla–a shove or a punch. The gorilla initiating the contact was the first one to run away and the other gorilla then chased the first in seven out of eight encounters. When instead of hitting the other, a gorilla merely initiated a “soft grab,” the initiator did not run away. In eight cases where there was a hit-and-run scenario, once the “victim” of the first hit in turn hits the other, the chase sequence was reversed. There is additional discussion to show that this behavior is not accidental and fully resembles “tag” played by children.

The conclusion drawn by the authors is that “non-human species respond to inequities by trying to maintain their competitive advantages” and that “non-human primates, like humans, may show different responses to inequities and that they may modify them depending on if they have the advantage or the disadvantage.”

I am somewhat confused by value-laden discussion. I don’t know if there is a sociological or social psychological definition of “inequality” or “inequity” or “advantage” (relating to inter-personal relations). I am also not certain that I would apply all these terms (however defined) to children playing tag. Nor do am I sure than a sociobiologist would look at this behavior in the same way. Nevertheless, the authors believe that this behavior is a form of learning that prevents more hostile encounters between members of the same group later in life.

Perhaps this is a behavior that was modified in humans or perhaps my own experiences are not typical, but I have always thought that the children who enjoyed playing tag (particularly when initiated by an unexpected punch or hostile shove) were the ones who most enjoyed (rather than avoided) hostile encounters as adults.

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