What can orangutans teach us about our organizations?
At first glance, orangutans seem inappropriate mentors
for learning about organizations. Most monkeys and apes form groups
with social mechanisms for maintaining group bonds and minimizing
conflict. In contrast, orangutans spend most of their adult life
apart from other mature orangutans. Yet orangutans, like the more
social chimpanzees, were recently found to possess some simple forms
of behaviors once believed unique to humans: widespread tool-use and
Anthropologists often study orangutans, chimpanzees
and other closely-related primate species as a way to better understand
the evolution of the human lineage. Technology, even the simplest
tool use, generally requires complex, learned behavior. Cultural
variation occurs when social learning leads to differences in behavior
between populations. In
1999 I went to Sumatra to study orangutan social behavior, with an
eye to investigating how culture and technology evolved.
I was comparing orangutan populations at two rainforest
sites: Ketambe, in the hills, and Suaq Balimbing, in the lowlands.
While some simple tools were used at both sites (for example, using
leafy branches like an umbrella to shelter from the rain), only the
orangutans at Suaq Balimbing were frequently using tools for extractive
foraging (usually poking a stick into a hard-to-reach place to pull
out something good to eat, like getting honey from a bees’ nest in
a hole in a tree).
Another difference between the sites was how gregarious
the orangutans were. The population densities were similar at both
sites, and orangutans at both sites spent similar amounts of time
within 50 meters of their nearest neighbor. But at Suaq Balimbing,
adult orangutans spent more time in very close proximity (less than
10 meters from one another) compared to the orangutans at Ketambe.
They also had a larger network of apparent “friends,” different orangutans
with whom they were willing to remain in close proximity.
Could these differences in technological complexity
and social tolerance be related? I think they are, in a simple feedback
interaction. Here’s how it works:
- Orangutans that spend more time close together
have more opportunities to learn new behaviors from their peers
(more social tolerance gives more time to learn from others).
- Orangutans with larger social networks have opportunities
to learn from diverse models, thereby potentially adding more innovations
and variations to their behavioral repertoire (diverse associates
lead to behavioral diversity and flexibility for individuals).
- A growing repertoire of skills makes new resources
available to the orangutans, reducing the need to compete and fostering
even greater social tolerance in an environment of abundance (more
behavioral diversity and flexibility can lead to more social tolerance).
This feedback cycle may be best illustrated by the
Neesia fruit that some orangutans use.
The Neesia is a large fruit with a woody outer husk, sort of
like a coconut and just as big. When the seeds inside are ripe, seams
open up along the sides of the fruit. The seeds are a real treat,
with a wonderful taste like sweetened cashews and coconut milk. They
provide a compact package of proteins and fats that orangutans crave
to supplement their usual diet of fruits and leaves. These nutritious
seeds would be especially beneficial to female orangutans while they
are pregnant or nursing (and they are almost always one or the other).
orangutan could probably poke a finger in to get the seeds, but it
would be exceedingly unpleasant because the inside of the Neesia
fruit is lined with little spine-like hairs that get into the skin
and itch. Huge male orangutans can break open ripe Neesia
fruits to pick out the seeds without getting stung by the hairs.
But these males can be twice the size of adult female orangutans.
The Neesia fruits are too tough for smaller orangutans to open
with this brute-strength approach, so in most places female orangutans
almost never get to eat any. At Suaq Balimbing, the orangutans use
technology to solve this problem, modifying twigs so they can be inserted
to pry out the Neesia fruit’s rich seeds. When the Neesia
fruits are open at Suaq Balimbing, it is not uncommon to see several
females feeding on them in the same tree, with very little conflict
over sharing this abundant resource.
The example of positive feedback in the development
of orangutan technology is probably a good model for how humans first
came to rely on tool-use, and what made us so successful as a species
that we are now affecting (some would say threatening) the entire
biosphere. But this model can also inform how we look at learning
organizations today. For best practices to spread and be maintained
throughout an organizational culture, there must be sufficient close
contact and social tolerance for observational learning, with social
networks spanning many individuals, in a way that reduces inter-individual
competition. Even the antisocial orangutans can teach us that.
What other organisms might we look to for even
more information about how to function in social networks and organizations?
In addition to my own research, these ideas are
based on some work that I did with my colleagues, published in:
van Schaik , C. P., M. Ancrenaz, G. Borgen,
B. Galdikas, C.D. Knott, I. Singleton, A. Suzuki, S. Utami, M. Merrill. 2003. Orangutan cultures
and the evolution of material culture. Science 299(1):
van Schaik, C.P., Deaner, R.O., Merrill, M.Y.
conditions for tool use in primates: implications for the evolution
of material culture. Journal of Human Evolution 36(6):
For more about orangutans, see my website at
Dr. Michelle Y. Merrill
is available to present this or related material on great apes and
the evolution of culture as keynotes.
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