Five years ago I was a guest lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill. My anthro-laden topic was “territoriality” in the land use context. This past month, researchers in Uganda’s Kibale National Park published a paper stating “Tom Terrell was right.” Well . . . not in those specific terms, but close enough for me to exclaim “See!?!”
My thesis, broadly stated, was that humans are genetically wired to be territorial, and that this helps to explain why, among other things, neighbors in the first subdivision in the area will turn out with torches and pitchforks to stop additional subdivisions in their area or along what used to be their former country road.
The first claim-staking settlers have already established that they had no regard for the traffic they were adding to a country road or the wildlife they were displacing or the urbanizing transformation they were bringing to a rural area. At the same time, they will appeal to their local government to recognize that those are the very problems that the second subdivision would create and ask that its approval be withheld. On the surface, there is no logic to this construct, yet anyone with much experience in local government has seen variations of this pattern many times.
The researchers in Uganda followed a troop of chimpanzees for ten years, noting that every couple of weeks they would line up in single file, move to the edge of their territory, and invade the neighboring troop’s land. Over ten years they increased the size of their territory by 22%, adding more fruit trees to their food stocks and enabling females to reproduce faster. It was hypothesized that both humans and chimps have a genetic predisposition to protect and expand their territories for essentially the same reasons.
The analogy between a housing development and chimpanzee territorial warfare is rough, but the connection is there to see. As humans, we are territorial in many ways. It’s part of our psyche. But when we attend public hearings to oppose others expanding (invading) our turf, it’s hard to say with a straight face, “This is our turf and we got here first and staked our claim.” So we talk about traffic and property values and loss of rural character and wildlife – all the problems we ourselves created. And we do it with a straight face.