BOZO OF A BABOON: A Talk with Robert Sapolsky
humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man—if
I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive
prowess is important—balls, translated into the more abstractly
demanding social realm of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is,
screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for
the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don't waste
your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially
cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that's not what pays
off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male
crap. I could not have said that when I was 25.
an undergraduate at Harvard, Robert Sapolsky asked himself: "Am
I a neurobiologist? Am I a zoologist?" He
has spent the past 25 years reconciling his interest in being a lab
scientist using "a very reductive approach
to figure out how the brain works" with his work in figuring out
and social behavior in East Africa.
areas come together in his thesis that "moral development is very
heavily built around...the frontal
cortex". According to Sapolsky, this is "the part of the brain that
keeps us from belching loudly during the wedding ceremony, or telling
think of the
meal they made, or being a serial murderer. It's the part of the
brain that controls impulsivity, that accepts the postponement of
gratification, that does constraint and anticipation, and that makes
you work hard because you will get into an amazing nursing home one
day if you just keep pushing hard enough. It's all about this very
human realm of holding off for later".
His ideas run counter to what he terms "a
development... that by the time you're a couple of years old, you have your maximal
of neurons, and all of them are wired up and functioning". He maintains
"we make new neurons throughout life, and parts of the brain don't come fully
on line until later. And, amazingly, the last area to do so is the frontal cortex,
not until around age 30 or so. It's the last part of the brain to develop, and
thus it's the part whose development is most subject to experience, environment,
reinforcement, and the social world around you. That is incredibly interesting."
So what does this have to do with "a
wonderful guy I named Benjamin. A total Bozo of a baboon"? Read on....
SAPOLSKY is a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University
and of neurology at Stanford's School of Medicine. He is also a research
associate at the National Museums of Kenya. While his primary research,
on stress and neurological disease, is in the laboratory, for twenty-three
years he has made annual trips to the Serengeti of East Africa to
study a population of wild baboons and the relationship between personality
and patterns of stress-related disease in these animals. His latest
book, A Primate's Memoir, grew out of the years spent in Africa.
He is also the author of Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms
of Neuron Death, and two books for nonscientists, The Trouble
With Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament andWhy
Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases
Sapolsky's Edge Bio Page
LINKS: Robert Sapolsky Home Page
BOZO OF A BABOON:
A TALK WITH ROBERT SAPOLSKY
a 20-year old doing field research in Africa, my sense of manly
competence was not terribly well-glued into shape. One baboon was
there from the very first year, a wonderful guy I named Benjamin.
A total Bozo of a baboon, he was my equivalent out there. He was
not pulling off the male-male competition very effectively; he
was not pulling off the male-female affiliation stuff very well.
His hair was almost as disheveled and unkempt as mine, and he was
the first baboon in the troop who ever interacted with me. For
some bizarre reason he was interested in me, and I utterly bonded
with him. Unfortunately in his prime adult years he spent about
a year being a complete jerk, but he fell out of that soon enough.
We even named our six year-old son after him, but he's considerably
more socially gifted than Benjamin, the baboon.
Once in the middle of the open savannah, a troop of about a hundred baboons
was foraging over a couple of square miles, where they would come together
at the end of the day. When you're foraging you get really hot, and so
you sit under a bush and take a nap for awhile. I was doing a 30 minute
observational sample on Benjamin, and during that time he fell asleep.
As I sat there watching what was not one of the more riveting samples
I've ever had, the rest of the troop wandered off.
Benjamin eventually woke up, right around the time I was finishing the
sample. I realized I had no idea where the other baboons were and he
had no idea either. He climbed a tree and gave a loud vocalization call.
It's a two-syllable wahoo call, and you can hear it for a mile in any
direction, and usually somebody yells back. But they were too far away
to hear his wahoos. He was up in the top of the tree, and getting anxious,
so I climbed on top of my vehicle with my binoculars and finally spotted
the baboons three hills over, and moving away really fast. And we had
one of those things—God help my Joe scientist credentials here—but
we looked at each other, and I got into the car and started driving and
he trotted alongside.
I waited for him, and at one point he crossed a stream and I had to go
a half mile up to another point to cross, and he waited for me. Together
we found the baboons. As far as I could tell nobody gave a shit that
he had been away, and they didn't seem particularly pleased to see me
either. But it was like in the Diane Fossey movie, when she touched fingers
with Digit for the first time. I understand how intense it was for her.
This was the nearest I had gotten to a baboon—a baboon is not a
gorilla, unfortunately—that first instant when he waited for me
to get back from crossing the stream. The unsentimental interpretation
is Benjamin realized I knew where the troop was: this guys's got more
information than I do so I'd better stick with him, but I'm going to
dump him first chance. The irresistible more sentimental interpretation
was that Benjamin and I had bonded across the species.
Years afterward, when I'd be sitting on a log, observing somebody else,
Benjamin was always the most likely baboon in the troop to come over
and sit down, not quite next to me, maybe four or five feet away. Being
close enough to hear a baboon's stomach rumbling is an amazing experience,
but he was the only one that would do that consistently.
how did I get from Brooklyn to hanging out with this Bozo of a
baboon in a national park in East Africa?
I've noticed that about three-quarters of the people who wind up doing
zoological fieldwork grew up in the field; their parents were researchers
or missionaries, and they inherited the family business. The other quarter
grew up in some total hell-hole of an urban neighborhood and at some
point managed to stumble into the Natural History Museum. They became
captivated by the first glass case they saw, and decided that they would
study geckoes or horseshoe crabs forever. My experience happened to focus
on non-human primates. I grew up in a horrendous neighborhood in Brooklyn
that's mostly famous for the worst tribal violence west of Kosovo. The
notion that there are places where you can learn about natural history
and that you can actually get the hell out of Brooklyn was very appealing
I became interested in natural history when I was eight years old. My
parents saw it as a passing phase—and still do. It's an annual
question from my mother: "Does that mean you're not going back to
Africa, now that you have a Ph.D.?" or "... now that you have
a faculty job?" or "... now that you're married and have kids?"
My father was an architectural historian, so I was pulled into archaeology
and an obsession with Egyptology very early. I could easily have gone
the dinosaur route, but instead absolutely turned to primatology. George
Schaller's book, The Year of the Gorilla, documenting the first fieldwork
with gorillas he did over six months in the 50s, convinced me. Today
people do 30-year-long studies, but at the time this was a landmark.
The idea that you can live in hiking shoes in a tent with a population
of primates was galvanizing to me. By the time I was ten, I was sending
fan letters to primatologists. I still run into some of them at meetings,
and although they're all retired now, they remember the crayon-scrawled
letters that they'd get from me now and then.
By the time I got to Harvard, I was all set to do nothing but primatology.
I was studying bioanthropology in the fall of my freshman year when E.
O. Wilson published Sociobiology and it was the required text in four
out of five of my classes. This was the period of Gould, Trivers, Lewontin,
Skinner, and Chomsky all battling with each other, and there were amazing
It was a totally fascinating period, because it was just incredibly contentious
stuff. Richard Herrnstein was there at the time doing his IQ heritability
stuff in the middle of the Cyril Burt scandal. Burt had done all of the
classic studies on IQ heritability for 50 years in the UK, almost single-handedly
created a stratified educational system in Britain, and had died a few
years before. He had been knighted, and was as honored as you could possibly
be, but right around that time it became fairly convincing that he had
fabricated a large percentage of his life's work.
This wasn't just fudging a number or cleaning up the data—he invented
nonexistent collaborators and co-authors. All his research hammered on
the point that IQ is highly heritable. It was a very contentious period.
Every evening all of us would be screaming at each other at the dinner
table over subjects like this, and there were dormitory lecture series
by various gray beards and various fights running. One week Chomsky would
come and we would spend the next week being Chomskyites, and the next
week B. F. Skinner would come and we'd be Skinnerians the week after.
We eventually got a sense of the sheer personalities of these people.
Richard Lewontin was fascinating. He was one of the most ideologically
consistent people I've ever seen, in terms of his leftist views, ones
that I agree fairly heavily with. It takes a lot of work to do abstract
basic science in such a way that every step clearly reflects your notion
of what the world is like and what aspects need to be remedied.
At some point my house at Harvard was looking for a new housemaster.
The usual deal was to get someone appointed who promised new carpets
or some such improvement. A bunch of us decided that we needed to seize
control and select our next housemaster and decided that it was going
to be Lewontin. I was actually sent to interview him, and he came up
with all these crazy, wonderfully communalist schemes.He was going to
set up a repository of term papers in the house so that anybody could
consult any paper and copy it, for example. Word eventually trickled
down from on high that he was most certainly not going to be the next
housemaster, and that we should just forget about it. It was not clear
he had any desire to be our housemaster, or if this was more nose-thumbing,
but he was a formidable political presence, and one of the radiating
bodies on the scene there.
A lot of those fires have cooled down. Herrnstein had a last salvo with The
Bell Curve just before he died, but the most contentious neo-'60s
intellectual scientific debates in the '70s died down. There are still
spurts, but in a lot of ways it became fairly clear at the far left end
that it's a pretty optimistic endeavor to think that science is going
to do a whole lot of social good. Most of the steam has come out of that
Meanwhile people on the sociobiological end figured out how to repackage
themselves. They got rid of that label because it had so many bad connotations
and reinvented themselves as evolutionary psychologists. They did it
at a time when everybody else was more interested in hostile takeovers
or cashing in on the '80s so somehow it didn't ignite as a lightning
rod. They're a perfectly respectable discipline, which means they have
as many people saying they make no sense as do the literary analysts.
Somehow they've reinvented themselves that way, and so a lot of the furor
has died down.
A critical juncture in my own career occurred in my freshman year of
college. I went to study with Irwin DeVore. He was the grand old man
of baboon research, and had done the first studies of baboons in the
wild. During my freshman year he had a minor heart attack, and canceled
his classes. So, on a whim, I took an introductory neurobiology class
and was blown away by the possibility of getting at some of the issues
I'd been thinking about—complex social behaviors and individual
personality differences—instead of an evolutionary model of explanation.
From this angle you could begin to understand what's going on in the
That generated a crisis in me for the rest of college. I asked myself, "Am
I a neurobiologist? Am I a zoologist?" If I was going to spend the
rest of my life in a tent in hiking shoes, what was I doing pipetting
stuff in a lab at two in the morning, and oscillating between lab and
primate research. Still uncertain at the end of college I delayed graduate
school in neurobiology for a year and a half to go out and start this
baboon field project. It looked like I was heading in the direction of
neurobiology, and I wanted to get at least one shot out there in the
field. But I came back realizing there was no way in hell that this was
going to be my only time out in the field. Ever since I have been dealing
with an intellectual tension that vacillates between the two ends.
it's as interesting to study primate researchers as it is to study
the apes, baboons, and monkeys. There's something of a caste system
at work. There’s a definite envy among the people who study
monkeys of the folks who study the big glamor picture apes.
You feel as if you’ve crossed this species barrier divide and all
of that, and the least you can wind up doing is getting something that
makes tools. The monkey researchers feel subordinated by the ape researchers,
but at least there’s all these prosimian researchers we can dump
on, making these snotty taxonomic arguments as to whether prosimians
even count as primates.
If anything, the hierarchy usually runs within species. It’s the
style that at one extreme you’ve got excessive reductive types
who are quantifying the number of blades of grass per hour that their
species eats, and do time budget analyses as a function of the thickness
of the ozone layer and their papers are total hard-ass science: it’s
math and it’s equations, and often horrndously boring, at lease
to me. At the other extreme you have the people who have no idea how
to do any quantitative science and they come back with the most amazing
observations of stuff that strikes home. You’ve got cultural transmission
and you’ve got tool use and you’ve got what appear to be
psychiatric disorders and primates’ grief..., but all in this really
unscientific framework. And each camp is utterly contemptuous of the
In terms of the two extremes, I'll just be nice enough to say that that
the reductionists tend to be behavior ecologist types, people who get
in the pattern of counting numbers of leaves and are kind of stuck in
that pattern for much of the rest of their life—it's a data-heavy
Then there's the "Oh, my God, these people have no numbers in their
papers except the page numbers and the volumes, but what they're doing
the latter is the crowd that changes our perception of ourselves
as a species. Jane Goodall of course is the goddess of this realm.
When you look at the people in between, the best example is Frans
De Waal, who has brought rigorous, quantitative science on which
can do bigtime statistical analysis, but he's looking at amazing
questions of primate politics, and political behavior and coalitional
In that regard he has wedded the two traditions better than anyone. He's
definitely the 600-pound gorilla in the field, as well he should be,
but it depends heavily on whether or not you're a primate ecology type,
the folks that are actually out there getting shot at by poachers—they
get tremendous moral currency for what they're doing—versus the
folks that are more vivisection oriented, working with captive primates.
In some ways it's a very scattered community, utterly divided between
hard-nosed scientific research basic science folks, versus the conservation
folks versus the sentimentalist story tellers. It's a very odd community.
And, as it turns out, it's a very un-housebroken community.
I've always been interested in figuring out how to assimilate being a
basic lab scientist—locked up with a bunch of rats or a bunch of
neurons growing in a dish, and using a very reductive approach to figure
out how the brain works—with my alternative life of the past 25
years which has involved looking at primate physiology and social behavior
in East Africa. It's been this process of trying to figure out how to
bridge the bottom-up lab approach and the top-down field approach to
begin to get a sense of where our individual differences come from, how
experience shapes the brain, and how adverse experiences in the form
of stress shape the brain. Not surprisingly, I don't feel as if I've
merged the two halves very effectively.
In the last couple of years I've realized where I want to take this in
the next decade or so. This is one of those ideas that requires having
kids since suddenly you find development to be fascinating. I've got
a three-year-old and a six-year-old and what I'm finding most interesting
right now is the realm of moral development. This interest is probably
right on schedule for a parent of a kid in a certain range.
Moral development is very heavily built around a part of the brain I
used to ignore because you don't find much of it in a lab rat: the frontal
cortex. The frontal cortex is an incredibly interesting part of the brain,
since it's the nearest thing we've got to a super-ego. It's the part
of the brain that keeps us from belching loudly during the wedding ceremony,
or telling somebody exactly what we think of the meal they made, or being
a serial murderer. It's the part of the brain that controls impulsivity,
that accepts the postponement of gratification, that does constraint
and anticipation, and that makes you work hard because you will get into
an amazing nursing home one day if you just keep pushing hard enough.
It's all about this very human realm of holding off for later.
The most amazing thing is that there is a dogma of neural development.
The dogma is that by the time you're a couple of years old, you have
your maximal number of neurons, and all of them are wired up and functioning.
But it turns out that we make new neurons throughout life, and parts
of the brain don't come fully on line until later. And, amazingly, the
last area to do so is the frontal cortex, not until around age 30 or
so. It's the last part of the brain to develop, and thus it's the part
whose development is most subject to experience, environment, reinforcement,
and the social world around you. That is incredibly interesting.
To put this in personal terms, my six-year-old might do something appallingly
horrible and selfish and age appropriate to one of my three-year-old's
toys. As a parent you swoop in and say, "This is not acceptable
and you cannot do that." But just as I (or my wife who is a clinical
nurse-psychologist, and so, pathetically, we actually speak like this
at home) am saying this, the other will say, "He can't help it;
he doesn't have a frontal cortex yet," to which the first inevitably
responds, "But how else is he going to get one?"
The concept of there being consequences to your actions is second nature
to people who think about child development, and certainly about moral
development in kids, but how does that get translated down to this nuts-and-bolts
level of the brain? How does "How else is he going to learn about
it?" turn into a frontal cortex that allows him someday to do the
right thing even though it's the harder thing, and even though everybody
else is doing something else? How does someone learn when it is important
to step away from the crowd at the critical moment? This question is
turning into the one that really fascinates me, and it's not a terribly
easy problem to go after.
There's a famous passage in which Richard Dawkins responds to the argument
that intrinsic to his metaphor of the selfish gene is an imperative:
If genes are really selfish, the difference between "is" and "ought" is
what life is about. He defends himself by saying that sometimes our genetic
roots will lead us to less than appealing behaviors, but we have to learn
to resist these imperatives. But somewhere in this philosophical critique
is the question of where the "we" is in that sentence. Where's
the "we" separate from our genes? In this case where's the "we" separate
from the question of whether you have elevendy neurons in your frontal
cortex or two times elevendy neurons, or a set of materialistic nuts
and bolts serving as building blocks of the whole system. Where's the
Bridging my interests in the lab and in the field winds up being hard
because of this question of where we get the elements of personality
that turn into impulsivity control. It's a couple of levels higher than
what I typically do in my lab, which is to try to understand what stress
does to a single neuron in a dish, and what that might have to do with
depression or anxiety. At the same time it's a couple of levels below
what I do with the baboons, which involves looking at who is successful
in the highly competitive, back-stabbing baboon societies and what this
has to do with physiology. You see the link when you observe at them
for a week, and realize that success is all about impulsivity control.
On the one hand there's the view of someone like Robert Ardrey that primate
social competition is all about, who's got the biggest canines, the most
muscle, and the biggest balls. This view is straight-ahead and deterministic.
Later, a much more p.c. version came along that held that competition
is all about social intelligence, forming coalitions, and being nice
in your game theory. But what really happens is that you'll get some
baboon that's absolutely physically adept and by Ardrey's logic should
be doing just fine. He also knows how to use social intelligence to form
coalitions, and so by Howard Gardner's reckoning he should also be doing
fine. However, at a critical moment he just can't stop himself from doing
something stupid, impulsive, and disinhibited. Amid the physical prowess
and the social intelligence, you look at the baboons that are most successful,
and not coincidentally pass on more copies of their genes, and they simply
have more impulsivity control.
Here’s an example: When baboons hunt together they'd love to get
as much meat as possible, but they're not very good at it. The baboon
is a much more successful hunter when he hunts by himself than when he
hunts in a group because they screw up every time they're in a group.
Say three of them are running as fast as possible after a gazelle, and
they're gaining on it, and they're deadly. But something goes on in one
of their minds—I'm anthropomorphizing here—and he says to
himself, "What am I doing here? I have no idea whatsoever, but I'm
running as fast as possible, and this guy is running as fast as possible
right behind me, and we had one hell of a fight about three months ago.
I don't quite know why we're running so fast right now, but I'd better
just stop and slash him in the face before he gets me." The baboon
suddenly stops and turns around, and they go rolling over each other
like Keystone cops and the gazelle is long gone because the baboons just
became disinhibited. They get crazed around each other at every juncture.
A typical male baboon is too impulsive and can't possibly do the disciplined
thing. Baboons are far less disciplined than chimps and when you map
their brain anatomy you notice that they don't have a whole lot of frontal
cortical function. Even though there are tremendous individual differences
among the baboons, they're still at this neurological disadvantage, compared
to the apes, and thus they typically blow it at just the right time.
They could be scheming these incredible coalitions, but at the last moment,
one decides to slash his partner in the ass instead of the guy they're
going after, just because he can get away with it for three seconds.
The whole world is three seconds long—they're very pointillist
in their emotions.
Baboons know what they're doing; they can play chess in their social
landscape almost as well as chimps in terms of moving the right pieces
around, but at the critical moment they simply can't stop themselves
from doing the impulsive thing. I once watched a Frans de Waal film, Chimpanzee
Politics, at a primate conference, and I was sitting next to another
baboonologist. There is a scene where some chimp had just pulled off
a brilliant Machiavellian maneuver, and the guy next to me turned and
said, "Christ, that is what a baboon would be like if it had a shred
of discipline or gratification-postponement." You're watching a
species where most of their social complexity and social misery is built
around the fact that at every logical juncture there's a pretty good
chance that they're not going to have enough frontal neurons to do the
prudent thing, and instead they blow it. It's amazing to study.
In the future the reductive scientific aspect of this will be to get
some handle on the neurobiology of how we turn into moral, or less than
moral, adults. This sounds grandiose, so a more obvious way to translate
it is to ask what experience has to do with frontal development. But
the undercurrent is trying to understand how we develop at the neurobiological
level and how we do the difficult thing when it's the right thing to
do. I suspect this project will wind up involving baboons, my children,
and neurons growing in dishes, assuming that somehow it will be possible
to link those levels.
This is extremely hard to get at neurobiologically, but is quite essential.
When I think about it, however, I realize that this doesn't begin to
match up to a much harder problem. We have a pretty good sense of reward,
punishment, and the neurochemistry of anticipation in the brain by now.
We know how to train a rat or a human to perform a behavior in exchange
for a reward. We understand exactly what is happening during the interim
between having performed a behavior and knowing that a reward is going
to come. We know that a burst of dopamine has much to do with the anticipation
of pleasure and reward. Building on our understanding of how to make
synapses change over time as the result of experience, learning, and
memory, it's not hard to imagine how to put those two pieces together
to begin to get experience training the system so that the length of
time you are willing to wait for the reward gets longer and longer.
Knowing that studying like crazy will give you amazing MCAT scores is
one example of gratification postponement. We understand that the brain's
basic structure enables it to do the right thing because it gets a reward,
giving it the metaphorical backbone, the robustness, if you will, to
do the right thing and to wait for the reward. If we can understand this
there's going to be a great amount of good for the world. If we can get
brains to be better at gratification postponement—because ultimately
altruistic behavior is about reciprocity—it's eventually going
to pay off.
The neo-cortex is one of the parts of the brain that ages dramatically,
and has something to do with personality disinhibition in old age. An
example of this occurs when suddenly Grandma is pissing off her teenage
granddaughter by telling her exactly what she thinks of that new outfit.
In a sense, understanding that problem, either at the level of baboons
or humans, is going to be worth the trouble. It will address questions
like: How do we get reinforced? How do we socially construct gratification
postponement, down to the level of neurology? How does experience make
for a frontal cortex that's more robustly able to make you hold your
This neurological science also has political implications and even concerns
sociopathic con-men. It relates to the question of how we understand
that there are other organisms out there with different world views and
emotions. It is very intrinsic to empathy. Sociopathic con-men have spectacular
theories of mind. They're extremely good at exploiting somebody else's
knowledge and emotions, as are most cult leaders, and the really good
ones have frontal cortices that make them very disciplined.
The problem that strikes me as totally impossible is one step beyond
that, and requires a certain amount of extrapolation. It is one thing
to say, "Do the right thing you get the reward right now." It
is another to say, "Do the right thing and you will get the reward
in 60 years," or "Do the right thing and you will get the reward
in your afterlife." That's fine and interesting, but the most challenging
moral quandaries arise because of circumstances where there is no chance
you're going to be rewarded, where, in fact, you will be punished for
For example, think of civil disobedience. Are you willing to sacrifice
yourself to do the right thing? There are many realms of martyrdom for
what you perceive to be the right thing and for which there is no reward.
What do you do if you have a non-theological framework and you can't
content yourself with afterlife? It can't have anything to do with the
The minute you're in the realm of Sister Helen Prejean, the nun featured
in the movie Dead Man Walking you have left the primates far behind.
How can someone spend all thie time ministering to the most deplorable,
scum-of-the-earth people? Prejean says that what has to be the case is
that the less lovable they are the more you have to love them. The less
likelihood of reward, the more you have to be willing to do the right
thing and get punished. This is the realm where Kierkegaard said that
Christians need to be able to contain two contradictory facts in their
head simultaneously, where the more explicitly faith is challenged, the
more irrefutably it is negated, the more there must be faith. Nothing
in primatology or in your dopamine reward pathways can explain that.
This is off the edge of the cliff into a completely different realm.
Incredibly few people live lives where they get no reward. This behavior
is certainly maladaptive, since by definition you're not going to be
passing on copies of your genes, and neither is your kin line. You can't
come up with any sort of adaptive argument that involves doing the incredibly
self-sacrificial right thing, and getting punished for it.
The typical male baboon career trajectory is to fight your way to the
top while building some good coalitional skills. When you're relatively
high-ranking and if you're going to stay up there, you switch from physical
prowess to psychological intimidation and social skills. But eventually
it catches up with you and you finally get into a key fight and get killed
or crippled or are utterly defeated and you crash way down. However,
every decade you'll get some guy who's fought his way up, and six months
into his ascendancy suddenly decides, "Who needs this?" and
voluntarily walks away from it. They seem to have some sort of epiphanal
mid-life crisis and go on to spend the rest of their lives hanging out
with infants and forming social attachments with females.
Ten years ago the evolutionary community would have had a derisive response
to this, saying that while this may be terrific, it's not a very successful
adaptive strategy because this guy is walking away from the competitive
world of maximizing his reproductive success. Now, however, genetic studies
are beginning to show that these guys out-reproduce the slash-and-burn
competitive guys, because they last for years afterward without getting
seriously injured and form this female affiliate. This is what happened
to Benjamin, my bozo of a baboon, who during his brief ascendancy became
a jerk. A terribly unlikely civil war had broken out in the troop and
it was in the aftermath of every plausible candidate having been done
in that he actually managed to stumble into the alpha position for about
and was as incompetent as he could be.
He had no idea what he was doing, he was anxious, and displacing aggression
onto every possible innocent bystander. Then he had an experience that
demonstrated exactly the cognitive limits in a baboon. They’re
smart, but they’re not chimps. Benjamin was leading a procession
as they were coming back at the end of the day along a path and through
some bushes. He’s leading the way, proud as hell of himself. But
the fact is alpha male baboons do not lead processions because they just
joined the troop a couple of years ago and they have no idea where anybody’s
processing – the 20-year old matriarchs do.
But Benjamin just happened to be in front of the troop, heading toward
the forest, marching along, never looking back. Unbeknownst to him, the
matriarch, who’s two steps behind him, veers off into the bushes
to the right, and 80 baboons follow her while he continues walking going
straight forward. Eventually Benjamin stops, looks back and freaks out.
His hair stands up, and he starts his wahoo calling, which is how he
spent a large part of his adult life: "Where is everybody?!" And
he then has a moment where you know exactly what he’s thinking.
He walks over to my Jeep and looks underneath, like—are 60 baboons
hiding under there waiting to surprise him? But no baboons. He sits down
by the Jeep, looking really demoralized and vaguely humiliated. This
is what he’s alpha for? Eventually he hears baboons burping nearby
in the bushes and starts looking for them again—they’re underneath
the car! once again he goes over to the jeep and bends over—in
this ridiculous position his head between his legs, looking for his fellow
baboons. It was a fabulous moment.
For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man—if
I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess
is important—balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding
social realm of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha
male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation,
build relationships with females, don't waste your time trying to figure
out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly
enough that's not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative
stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was
According to an unexpected finding called female choice it turns out
that females have a hell of a lot of control over who they're mating
with, and, irrationally enough, they like to mate with guys that are
nice to them! You see this dynamic when some guy from the male-male competitive
world pops out and is supposed to be her mate. She wants to run off to
the bushes with Alan Alda, and manipulates the social situation to pull
A handful of these guys simply walked away from it over the years. Nathaniel
was one, and Joshua was another. They had the lowest stress hormone levels
you've ever seen in male baboons, and outlived their cohorts. The fact
that this alternative strategy is actually the more adaptive one is one
of the good bits of news to come out of primatology in quite some time.
If that's the future of primates, this planet is going to be in great
shape in a couple of million years.
How much this pops up in other species—chimps, for example—is
not as clear. Chimps intrinsically have a different version of being
aggressive because whereas male baboons change troops at puberty—meaning
that all the adult males in a troop are unrelated—male chimps spend
their whole lives in the same group. It’s the females who change
tropps. A group containing big adult males who've known each other their
whole lives, being related to some degree, is a prescription for dangerous
males, and the building block of organized warfare. And that's exactly
what chimps do; they patrol their borders. It's a very similar demographic
pattern to what is seen in patrilocal nomadic pastoralist cultures, the
folks who invented warrior classes.
pastoralist societies try to increase the sense of relatedness
amongst the warriors, melding them together, creating a pseudo-kinship
among young men who feel like they've known each other long enough
to be willing to put their necks on the line for each other. That
is one hell of a prescription for trouble for the neighbors. You
sure decrease the homicide rate within the group and you've virtually
invented genocide, and chimps were the first ones to get this one
going. It's a scary combination.