Baboons, Humans, and Aggression

The end of war

excerpted from 30 Dec. 2004 | Toronto Star


The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions, once established, can be maintained. And if baboons can do it, why not us?

? Frans de Waal, Yerkes Primate Centre, Emory University

About 20 years ago, a disaster struck the Forest Troop of baboons in Kenya. There was a tourist lodge within their range, and the biggest and toughest males in the troop would regularly go to the garbage dump there to forage for food. Subordinate males, however, did not go — so when the brutal and despotic alpha males of Forest Troop all ate meat infected with bovine tuberculosis at the dump and promptly died, the less aggressive 50 per cent of the group’s males survived. And the troop’s whole culture changed.

Male baboons are so obsessed with status that they are always on a hair-trigger for aggression — and it isn’t just directed at male rivals of equal status. Lower-ranking males routinely get bullied and terrorized, and even females (who weigh half as much as males) are frequently attacked and even bitten. You really would not want to live your life as a baboon.

Yet after the biggest, baddest males of Forest Troop all died off at once, the whole social atmosphere changed. When it was first studied by primatologists in 1979-82, it was a typical, utterly vicious baboon society, but after the mass die-off of the bullies the surviving members relaxed and began treating one another more decently.

The males still fight even today — they are baboons, after all — but they quarrel with other males of equal rank rather than beating up on social inferiors, and they don’t attack the females at all. Everybody spends much more time in grooming, huddling close together, and other friendly social behaviour, and stress levels even for the lowest-ranking individuals (as measured by hormone samples) are far lower than in other baboon troops. Most important of all, these new behaviours have become entrenched in the troop’s culture.

Male baboons rarely live more than 18 years: The low-status survivors of the original disaster are all gone now. All the current adult males of the Forest Troop are baboons who joined it as adolescents after 1982, so by now the range of male personalities in Forest Troop must have returned to the normal baboon distribution. But the level of aggression has not returned to baboon-normal.

“We don’t yet understand the mechanism of transmission,” said Robert Sapolsky, a biology and neurology professor at Stanford University who co-authored the 2004 report on the Forest Troop phenomenon, “but the jerky new guys are obviously learning: We don’t do things like that around here.'”

Human beings are less aggressive and more co-operative than baboons or even chimpanzees, and a thousand times more flexible in our cultural arrangements: Most of us now live quite comfortably in pseudo-bands called nations that are literally a million times bigger than the bands our ancestors lived in until the rise of civilization.

War is deeply embedded in our history and our culture, probably since before we were even fully human, but weaning ourselves away from it should not be a bigger mountain to climb than some of the other changes we have already made in the way we live, given the right incentives. And we have certainly been given the right incentives: The holiday from history that we have enjoyed since the early ’90s may be drawing to an end, and another great-power war, fought next time with nuclear weapons, may be lurking in our future.

…. Our task over the next few generations is to transform the world of independent states in which we live into some sort of genuine international community.

If we succeed in creating that community, however quarrelsome, discontented, and full of injustice it will probably be, then we shall effectively have abolished the ancient institution of warfare. Good riddance.

Read the full article …

Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian journalist based in London whose articles are published in 45 papers worldwide. This is an abridged version of the last chapter in his updated book, War, first published in 1985. His latest book is Future: Tense. The Coming Global Order, published by McClelland and Stewart. Thanks to Leslie Moyer of the OK Progressives for passing this story along.

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