Baboon “Culture” and Give Peace a Chance (or Tuberculosis)

Posted on December 13, 2010


Here is a very well-known and oft-repeated tale in the primatology world -

Robert Sapolsky, the Stanford neurobiologist and primatologist, discovered a funny fact about baboons, stress levels, and social hierarchy that may reveal a lot about our own human society:

Through measuring adrenaline and cortisol levels in the blood of various male baboons of different social rankings, he found that higher-ranked baboons have lower stress levels than lower-ranked baboons, and consequently suffered less stress-related health risks.

One summer, through a tragedy that led to interesting new discoveries, Sapolsky discovered that a large percentage of his baboon group had passed away after scavenging for food in a nearby human village. The food was infested with tuberculosis, therefore a big portion of the baboon population died. However, it so happened that the portion that died were the alpha males, who were most aggressive in commanding the food.

The baboon males that remained were less aggressive and more peaceful than the alphas that had been killed, and so the group at large became much gentler in their dealings with one another. Interestingly enough, as the years went by, other male baboons that join the group adopt the mild and sociable nature of this baboon group, and learn to be more cooperative upon joining this particular baboon culture.

Furthermore, the stress level and health of the group improved with the elimination of its most domineering members. And Sapolsky himself made the inference that with fewer alphas, there is less aggression, less hierarchy, and less stress, contributing to the overall welfare of the group.

Drawing the analogy to human society, of course, brings to mind an obvious question:

Would we be happier if we got rid of our alphas?

All the belligerent bastards that apparently drive our global political economy – the macho, missile-throwing sons of devils that insist on bringing their manly pride into the picture every time a diplomatic effort is made. Would we all better off if the lot of them just happened to come down with an incurable case of tuberculosis?

Though most observations in primatology and ecology seem to favor fitting themselves into nice neoliberal economic models of competition and hierarchy, or subordination and death – this particular case of baboon peace-making seems to scream:

“Otro mundo es posible.”

Is it not a Kropotkin dream? A rare point for socialism in the game of scientific validation of economics?

Where did those baboon alphas evolve from anyway? Those jerks that beat up all the women, eat up all the food, and spend every free minute making the inferior baboons feel as miserable as possible – how in hell did they become an evolutionary advantage for a social order? Apparently, their death brings the height of civilization (for baboons anyway), and result in overall awesomeness for the family – so why did these gangsters stay in the gene pool?

Perhaps Sapolsky’s baboon group is not characteristic of “nature” in that there is far too much human interference – that is, the particular location and environment of these baboons, close enough to a human village to get food poisoning, makes this group somewhat protected from invasion by other groups, and so, there is less of a need for defense, a role that the alpha males would normally play.

But if human intervention is the element that makes peace possible, then surely our own human intervention should also have that effect on ourselves?

Not so much.

We still got the sharks at the top of the food chain. But the feminists have been working on them for a while now, and progress is…forthcoming?