Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Baboon Culture

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.

Sapolsky 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.

The 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.
In 1993, 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.
What does Christianity have to do with the observations of fellow primates by neuroscientists – whose most important discovery was behavioral and, obviously, cultural?

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 violence.

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 males.

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.

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