As with elephants, the core social unit is a clan of some 10 or 12 females and their offspring. Sperm whales also are highly vocal. They communicate with one another using a Morse code-like pattern of clicks. Each clan, Dr. Whitehead said, has a distinctive click dialect that the members use to identify one another and that adults pass to the young. In other words, he said, “It looks like they have a form of culture.”
Researchers who study highly gregarious and relatively brainy species like rhesus monkeys, baboons, dolphins, sperm whales, elephants and wolves have lately uncovered evidence that the creatures engage in extraordinarily sophisticated forms of politicking, often across large and far-flung social networks.
Among elephants, it is the females who are the born politicians, cultivating robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other elephants, a task made easier by their power to communicate infrasonically across miles of savanna floor. Wolves, it seems, leaven their otherwise strongly hierarchical society with occasional displays of populist umbrage, and if a pack leader proves a too-snappish tyrant, subordinate wolves will collude to overthrow the top cur.
The paradox of a highly social species like rhesus monkeys and humans is that our complex sociality is the reason for our success, but it’s also the source of our greatest troubles,” he said. “Throughout human history, you see that the worst problems for people almost always come from other people, and it’s the same for the monkeys. You can put them anywhere, but their main problem is always going to be other rhesus monkeys.”
As Dr. Maestripieri sees it, rhesus monkeys embody the concept “Machiavellian” (and he accordingly named his recent popular book about the macaques “Macachiavellian Intelligence”).
Rhesus monkeys, midsize omnivores with ruddy brown fur, long bearded faces and disturbingly humanlike ears, are found throughout Asia, including in many cities, where they, like everybody else, enjoy harassing the tourists. The monkeys typically live in groups of 30 or so, a majority of them genetically related females and their dependent offspring.
A female monkey’s status is usually determined by her mother’s status. Male adults, as the ones who enter the group from the outside, must establish their social positions from scratch, bite, baring of canines and, most importantly, rallying their bases.