Skip to main content

This is excerpted from an article in the New York Times by Natalie Angier, April 13, 2004 . There is a message which I'll leave cryptic.

Sometimes it takes the great Dustbuster of fate to clear the room of bullies and bad habits. Freak cyclones helped destroy Kublai Khan's brutal Mongolian empire, for example, while the Black Death of the 14th century capsized the medieval theocracy and gave the Renaissance a chance to shine.

Among a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya, a terrible outbreak of tuberculosis 20 years ago selectively killed off the biggest, nastiest and most despotic males, setting the stage for a social and behavioral transformation unlike any seen in this notoriously truculent primate.

In a study appearing today in the journal PloS Biology (online at www.plosbiology.org), researchers describe the drastic temperamental and tonal shift that occurred in a troop of 62 baboons when its most belligerent members vanished from the scene. The victims were all dominant adult males that had been strong and snarly enough to fight with a neighboring baboon troop over the spoils at a tourist lodge garbage dump, and were exposed there to meat tainted with bovine tuberculosis, which soon killed them. Left behind in the troop, designated the Forest Troop, were the 50 percent of males that had been too subordinate to try dump brawling, as well as all the females and their young. With that change in demographics came a cultural swing toward pacifism, a relaxing of the usually parlous baboon hierarchy, and a willingness to use affection and mutual grooming rather than threats, swipes and bites to foster a patriotic spirit.

Remarkably, the Forest Troop has maintained its genial style over two decades, even though the male survivors of the epidemic have since died or disappeared and been replaced by males from the outside. (As is the case for most primates, baboon females spend their lives in their natal home, while the males leave at puberty to seek their fortunes elsewhere.) The persistence of communal comity suggests that the resident baboons must somehow be instructing the immigrants in the unusual customs of the tribe.

''We don't yet understand the mechanism of transmittal,'' said Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford, ''but the jerky new guys are obviously learning, 'We don't do things like that around here.' '' Dr. Sapolsky wrote the report with his colleague and wife, Dr. Lisa J. Share.

Dr. Sapolsky, who is renowned for his study of the physiology of stress, said that the Forest Troop baboons probably felt as good as they acted. Hormone samples from the monkeys showed far less evidence of stress in even the lowest-ranking individuals, when contrasted with baboons living in more rancorous societies.

The researchers were able to compare the behavior and physiology of the contemporary Forest Troop primates to two control groups: a similar-size baboon congregation living nearby, called the Talek Troop, and the Forest Troop itself from 1979 through 1982, the era that might be called Before Alpha Die-off, or B.A.D.

''It's a really fine, thorough piece of work, with the sort of methodology and lucky data sets that you can only get from doing long-term field research,'' said Dr. Duane Quiatt, a primatologist at the University of Colorado at Denver and a co-author with Vernon Reynolds of the 1993 book ''Primate Behaviour: Information, Social Knowledge and the Evolution of Culture.''

The new work vividly demonstrates that, Putumayo records notwithstanding, humans hold no patent on multiculturalism. As a growing body of research indicates, many social animals learn from one another and cultivate regional variants in skills, conventions and fashions. Some chimpanzees crack open their nuts with a stone hammer on a stone anvil; others prefer wood hammers on wood anvils. The chimpanzees of the Tai forest rain-dance; those of the Gombe tickle themselves. Dr. Jane Goodall reported a fad in one chimpanzee group: a young female started wiggling her hands, and before long, every teen chimp was doing likewise.

But in the baboon study, the culture being conveyed is less a specific behavior or skill than a global code of conduct. ''You can more accurately describe it as the social ethos of group,'' said Dr. Andrew Whiten, a professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who has studied chimpanzee culture. ''It's an attitude that's being transmitted.''

The report also offers real-world proof of a principle first demonstrated in captive populations of monkeys: that with the right upbringing, diplomacy is infectious. Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal, the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University in Atlanta, has shown that if the normally pugilistic rhesus monkeys are reared with the more conciliatory stumptailed monkeys, the rhesus monkeys learn the value of tolerance, peacemaking and mutual hip-hugging.

Dr. de Waal, who wrote an essay to accompany the new baboon study, said in a telephone interview, ''The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions, once established, can be maintained,'' he said.

''And if baboons can do it,'' he said, ''why not us? The bad news is that you might have to first knock out all the most aggressive males to get there.''

...

Dr. Sapolsky has no idea how long the good times will last. ''I confess I'm rooting for the troop to stay like this forever, but I worry about how vulnerable they may be,'' he said. ''All it would take is two or three jerky adolescent males entering at the same time to tilt the balance and destroy the culture.''

Tags

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site