A Baboon Study Remembered
By NYTimes Editorial
Published: July 4th, 2009
While thinking about the recent changes in this country, I recalled an article by Robert M. Sapolsky (in Foreign Affairs, January 2006), who lived for a while among a troop of baboons in the wild, and witnessed a remarkable transformation.
Forest Troop was initially composed of a regular mixture of baboons: gentle ones, mean ones, and a few in-between. One day, a nearby hotel expanded its garbage dump, and another troop of baboons claimed the dump as territory and primary food source. Forest Troop’s meaner males (let’s call them Clique W) decided they would raid this exciting new resource, even if that meant beating up a number of the newly obese males from the garbage dump troop.
After feasting on the other troop’s half-rotten hamburgers for a while, Clique W got what was coming to them and died of food-borne tuberculosis. All that remained in Forest Troop were females and nice males. And even today, fifteen years after all the original docile males died of old age, Forest Troop remains a gentle culture, much more welcoming to new members, with a lot less fighting and a lot more cooperation, and a lot more playing with each other’s hair, even among adult males. And new members quickly learn that things are different in Forest Troop.
Until very recently, we in this country couldn’t imagine life without the aggressive baboons who, by hook and by crook (mostly by crook), were dominating our politics. But then one day, those baboons ate out of the garbage dump of a deeply mad foreign policy, and quickly killed themselves off.
We are not baboons, of course. For one thing, no microbes killed off our jerks; rather, we nicer folks did it. For another, the resource-hunting adventures of our own hostile males didn’t result in just a few dinged-up fat guys, but rather one million dead and four and a half million refugees.
Another key difference between us and Forest Troop may be that in our case, it wasn’t enough to rid ourselves of some of the creep baboons at the top. A lot of the supposedly gentler ones voted for war as well. Rather, right after the elections, and for many months after, we had to keep pushing with all our might to make sure that everyone, at all levels of power, understood that America would now be a culture of peace and generosity.
Fortunately, that’s just what we did. And though human nature hasn’t changed, nor the nature of politics, we’ve made our desires so clear that there is now no more room in Forest Troop U.S.A. for the garbage adventuring that dominated our last thirty years.
11 Comments so far ...
1. Not Angier
Just how much cultural isolation is needed for an alternative, less aggressive cultural paradigm to persist in the face of newly arriving memes of aggression?
The story of Forest Troop may be inspiring, but I wonder if its lesson is that in order to persist, peaceable cultures must innoculate themselves from aggression, either by a level of cultural isolation that’s impossible in modern human society, or by the periodic and tragic culling (or incarceration) of the ever-arising clique-Ws.
Perhaps the most hopeful lesson from Forest Troop is that in the 20-some years since the human-mediated plague that killed 50% of their males and changed their culture, we have managed to avoid doing it to them again.
Comment on November 12, 2008 09:06 pm
Thank you for such an insightful and scientific reminder. Am hoping baboons will not be ashamed of us few years down the road.
WOW-what an edition !
Any encore? Seconds/leftovers ? - I live in NYC but missed this awesome edition.
Did you send a few copies to Obama’s office in Chicago ?
A perfect blueprint, and BO seems to have pretty dry sense of humor - he’d have a good chuckle(he needs them, too..) in addition to SERIOUS food for thought.
Comment on November 13, 2008 07:34 am
Clique W will return;lead by a lipstick wearing,blunder-mentalist female
baboon with vacant eyes and a similar brain.You have been warned.
Comment on November 13, 2008 02:47 pm
Comment on November 13, 2008 06:47 pm
This story reminds me of my thoughts as a child. The reality turned out to be far worse than my child mind could imagine though. I never thought I would live in a world where those nasty baboons weren’t in complete control though.
Comment on November 14, 2008 04:28 pm
Check out Almost Human, by Shirley Strum,’87 : “a journey into the world of baboons”. Dr. Strum comments: that “although built like a fighting machine”—”a male baboon is a masterful social strategist, first winning friends by caring for and protecting them”. We have a lot to learn.
Comment on November 15, 2008 11:28 am
7. chris suggs
“F Troop”! Boy, do we need Larry Storch now.
Comment on November 15, 2008 03:35 pm
“Descarate’s Error” points out the inseparability of body and brain, of emotion and decision making… emotion is in fact essential. We are generally ignorant or disbelieving of the role our bodies play in decisions, we exhibit large doses of “naive relealism”: modern man must be aware of and responsible for his/her emotional sway in decision. Not negate it, but know how it is functioning and use it wisely.
Comment on November 16, 2008 01:25 pm
We can never change the things that we are inside. These are powerful impulses because they have served us well until recently.
total peace is total death; we must KNOW ourselves and of what we are capable.
Comment on November 16, 2008 08:30 pm
10. Mike V.
Here’s that original Sapolsky article… it’s worth printing out and reading.
Comment on November 21, 2008 04:33 pm
All right, I was with you up to this point. But I just channeled Liberace and even HE thinks this is a little too gay. Nevertheless, he and the nice people, dead though many of them may be, send you kudos and big thanks for this ambitious and beautiful achievement. Clearly a huge amount of sweat and brilliance went into it. May the sun soon shine on a day resembling the one you’ve portrayed here. xxx
Comment on December 3, 2008 03:09 pm