In 2004, PLOS Biology, a peer-reviewed journal, published “Emergence of Peaceful Culture in Baboons,” documenting the field work of neurologist Robert Sapolsky and neuropsychologist Lisa Share.
remarked, as a young researcher in Kenya, that while he studied baboons
– in his case, using baboons to study the effects of stress – he found
the animals to be highly disagreeable.
When he and Lisa Share
published their article, they described what happened to a troop of
baboons that Sapolsky had long observed, at the very point where he’d
cut off his former research. A catastrophe had befallen “Forest Troop”
that led Sapolsky to cut off contact and return home. The troop was
scavenging food from a tourist facility, where it contracted bovine
tuberculosis. The plague wiped out most of the males in the troop.
reason the males died was that Forest Troop was run by the males who
were most successful at violence. A pecking order was established, and
the smaller females were not permitted to feed until the males had their
fill. The contaminated food was meat, prized by baboons, and so the
males hogged down the meat, and accidentally saved their female
counterparts. As Sapolsky had said, they were highly disagreeable. The
troop had a culture of bullying that ensured – as we said in the army –
that defecation ran downhill. You took it from the more dominant, and
you dished it out to those who were weaker than you.
Sapolsky and Share returned to Kenya and rejoined the Forest Troop.
What they found was that, while the ratio of female to male was more
than two to one after the dominant male dieoff, the ratio had returned
to approximately half and half. That was no particular surprise.
Pubescent male baboons migrate into new troops. What was surprising was
how pacific the troop remained, long after the loss of the former
dominant males. The troop was highly cooperative and generally
non-aggressive. It was even more so than another troop they observed
during this period – as a kind of control group that hadn’t undergone
the mass death of males.
The implications of this for those who
still dichotomize ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ is perhaps the first ‘issue’
that comes to mind with the story of these baboons. That is not,
however, my reason for introducing this here.
Christianity have to do with the observations of fellow primates by
neuroscientists – whose most important discovery was behavioral and,
Our distant cousins in Kenya seem to have
shown us that even other primates share two characteristics with human
beings: their actions are strongly influenced by a culture, and there
has been a strong correspondence between the category male and that of
If anything, this is a redemptive tale, because it shows
that with changes in culture, the members of a society can more readily
flourish. We are – as the baboons are, apparently – biologically
determined not to be biologically determined. Our biologies can no
longer succeed without a waiting culture. That means we can change; but
change has to happen in the culture itself. Hopefully not always with
the kind of rough justice that was visited on the Forest Troop Alpha
I submit that the Gospels say the same thing in a sense
more appropriate to humans – with their vastly greater creative capacity
for good or ill – that the very analog of Forest Troop’s violent male
authoritarianism was what Jesus of Nazareth set himself against in word
and deed. There is New Life, in a new kingdom, but it must first cast
off domination… even unto death on a cross.