Why bullying is such a successful evolutionary strategy

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Source: BBC

By Melissa Hogenboom

Frodo ruled with an iron fist. He incited fear among his fellow group members.

His “demonic streak”, as it was later called, started early. From three years old he was throwing rocks at those around him.

Frodo, a large-bodied chimpanzee with a recognisable grey streak, would later become the alpha male of his group in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. The primatologist Jane Goodall called him a “real bully”. She had even predicted his rise back in 1979, writing: “In about twenty years one of these two brothers probably will become the alpha.”

All the other chimps feared Frodo, which helped his rise to the top. He even pushed himself on his own mother, and fathered a sickly infant with her, who would not survive for long.

“He was aggressive towards all of the other chimps,” says anthropologist Michael Wilson of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who first met Frodo in 2001. “A lot of the other males had a bare patch of fur on their lower back side from where Frodo would bite them.”

Many other primates show similar behaviour to Frodo’s. His actions hint at something rather dark about our shared ancestry with chimpanzees. They suggest that bullying your way to the top has a long history, and may even be innate.

Frodo was alpha male for five years (Credit: Anup Shah/Naturepl.com)

Frodo ruled his group for five years (Credit: Anup Shah/Naturepl.com)

Bullying is not easy to define, namely because there is no one way to bully. It comes in many forms, from physical playground scuffles to verbal attacks and, nowadays, online harassment.

Any hierarchical society is likely to have bullies in its midst

It is pervasive in human society, having been reported across many different cultures. Psychologists frequently devote whole papers to its causes and consequences.

There is no legal definition of bullying. The UK governmentdefines it as repeated behaviour with the “intent to hurt someone either physically or emotionally”. Similarly, in a 2014 report, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the USdefined bullying as: “any unwanted aggressive behaviour(s)…that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times.”

By those definitions there are many ape and monkey bullies. In fact, any hierarchical society is likely to have bullies in its midst.

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