Life in the Jungle: The Candidates Have a Lot to Learn

Suzanne Fields

1/28/2008 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Not so long ago, our parents and teachers were forever admonishing us not to act like animals. Now our candidates for president are showing us how they think they can profit by imitating animals, especially the brainy ones. Like the elephants, for example.

Hillary can take heart. "Among elephants, it is the females who are the born politicians," writes Natalie Angier, a science writer, in The New York Times. An elephant typically cultivates robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other elephants, a task made easier because of their ability to communicate "infrasonically," in sound below the human ability to hear. (If only Hillary could laugh and shout infrasonically.)

Elephant society is organized as a matriarchy led by the oldest female. The "leading lady" gets the best food and the best place to sleep, but such status and power comes with responsibility, requiring her to lead the charge when there are conflicts with outsiders. She's the elephant in chief, with no male surrogate to take on the matriarch's battles.

Hillary may have lifted a (tree) leaf from the olive baboons, where female friends and female networks are more important to gathering political power than forging alliances with males. Her "husband" shows a greater kinship with the male rhesus monkey, the "quintessential opportunist," struggling for power to take control of everything. The rhesus males, according to one primatologist, have a "Machiavellian intelligence" and only help other monkeys who can do something for them: "They try to gain maximal benefits at minimal cost, and that's a strategy that seems to work."

The behavior of politicians, like other human behavior, is frequently compared to that of lower-order mammals. It was Aristotle who insisted that man is a "political animal." He drew on his experience from the laboratory, but the philosopher's point was to show how we were capable of rising above animals. The ability to utilize speech and reason lends us the theoretical ability to create a government to make things better for everyone. Yet every political season we're reminded how easy it is for the aggressive human animal to dominate other humans.

Bill Clinton, ever ready to inject his aggressive instincts into the conversation, tries to put a light-hearted face on the pugilism between Hillary and Obama. "I know it's crazy, but I kind of like to see Barack and Hillary fight," he said, answering the rebuke of leading Democrats for dividing the party. "They're flesh and blood people and they have their differences," he said. Let them at it." Translated from politician-speak, he thinks he's helping her win the prize fight by luring Obama to stoop to their level of attack, to abandon his high-minded attempt to end divisiveness in the land. Doesn't Bill sound just like a rhesus monkey?

Bubba owes his wife big-time, but it's clear that he enjoys his "knock 'em, sock 'em" behavior in the campaign a lot more than he liked playing the statesman at the side of George H.W. Bush. A cursory reading of his most recent book, "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World," reveals that he finds little thrill in altruistic motivation, which probably explains why sales for the book have been sluggish. The former president is not interested in other people changing the world, only in seeing that the Clintons are seen doing that. Even his old friends at The Washington Post suggest that his book shows off Bill Clinton's Machiavellian intelligence: "He strokes some who might be helpful to his wife's campaign, lavishing praise, for instance, on his former vice president, Al Gore, who remains on the electoral sidelines with a potent following."

Desmond Morris, zoologist and author of the groundbreaking book "The Naked Ape," describes how man, the human animal, often fights for the same reasons that beasts of the jungle do -- for dominance in a social hierarchy and to establish territorial rights. The overlay of civilization reduces violence in human fights, but our vocabulary is studded with metaphors drawn from aggression in animals. When the zoologist notes that animal fighting can lead to a "valuable victory," he warns that it can bloody the victor and do him irreparable harm. Human political fights have similar side effects without drawing actual blood.

Obama deserves credit for attempting to change the nature of the fight, but that may be impossible without help from the Clintons. The winner in each state must survive a bruising experience, but a knockout, whenever it comes, will make a return to the White House ever closer. The race is not about who's the best dancer, as Obama joked, but about who's the best brawler.