Best of Fish & Bicycles: If Baboons Can Do It…

Originally Published: April 11, 2011


I read an absolutely fascinating article in Yes! Magazine today by Robert Sapolsky, loaded with a ton of information that I did not know about primates, full of surprises, by turns disturbing, sweet, sexy (yes, sexy!), sad, scary, and hopeful.

Disturbing

It used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate. That view fell by the wayside in the 1960s as it became clear that some other primates kill their fellows aplenty. Males kill; females kill. Some kill one another’s infants with cold-blooded stratagems worthy of Richard III. Some use their toolmaking skills to fashion bigger and better cudgels. Some other primates even engage in what can only be called warfare—organized, proactive group violence directed at other populations…

Goodall and other chimp researchers have carefully documented an endless stream of murders, cannibalism, and organized group violence among their subjects…

The most disquieting fact about the violent species was the apparent inevitability of their behavior.

Sounds pretty bleak, huh?

Sweet

But all along there has been another chimp species, one traditionally ignored…Now known as bonobos, they are recognized as a separate and distinct species that taxonomically and genetically is just as closely related to humans as the standard chimp. And boy, is this ever a different ape…

Male bonobos are not particularly aggressive and lack the massive musculature typical of species that engage in a lot of fighting (such as the standard chimp). Moreover, the bonobo social system is female-dominated, food is often shared, and there are well-developed means for reconciling social tensions.

What’s that I hear? An old song I discovered via the Grateful Dead?

That’s right, the women are smarter
That’s right, the women are smarter
That’s right, the women are smarter
The women are smarter than the men today.

–Norman Span

Sexy

And then there is the sex…

Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or to cajole its sharing, or just because.

You know, I kinda wish I was a bonobo all of a sudden.

Then again, maybe not…

Sad

So—a wondrous species (and one, predictably, teetering on the edge of extinction).

Sometimes I really hate that fucker Charles Darwin.

But, here’s where it gets REALLY interesting.

Sapolsky proceeds to describe two troops of Savannah Baboons he observed over many years, troops that inhabited neighboring territories, troops that were typically aggressive and violent, until one day a tuberculosis outbreak, spread via the garbage from a tourist lodge, wiped out the whole troop nearest the lodge as well as most of the males from the other troop, who made early morning raids into their neighbors’ territory in order to get at the garbage from the lodge as well.

Scary

The results were that Forest Troop was left with males who were less aggressive and more social than average, and the troop now had double its previous female-to-male ratio…

The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other—a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

Speaking as a male primate, that is some scary damning evidence that the very testosterone coursing through my veins is the primary cause of so much death and destruction throughout history.

And yet…

Hopeful

Female savanna baboons spend their lives in the troop into which they are born, whereas males leave their birth troop around puberty; a troop’s adult males have thus all grown up elsewhere and immigrated as adolescents. By the early 1990s, none of the original low aggression/high affiliation males of Forest Troop’s tuberculosis period was still alive; all of the group’s adult males had joined after the epidemic. Despite this, the troop’s unique social milieu persisted—as it does to this day, some 20 years [later]…

As defined by both anthropologists and animal behaviorists, “culture” consists of local behavioral variations, occurring for nongenetic and nonecological reasons, that last beyond the time of their originators. Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture…

The first half of the twentieth century was drenched in the blood spilled by German and Japanese aggression, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the 17th century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility….

Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, “No, it is beyond our nature,” knows too little about primates, including ourselves.

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