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New Baboon

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John Horgan examines how Americans seem to have a completely different attitude toward war than we did thirty years ago. He takes us on a stroll through Hoboken, asking strangers one of the great unanswerable questions: "Will humans ever stop fighting wars?" Strangely, everyone seems to know the answer. Robert Sapolsky brings us farther afield - to eastern Africa, where a population of baboons defies his expectations of violent behavior. Robert is surprised to feel hopeful for a gentler future, but then primatologist Richard Wrangham asserts that their aggressive nature is innate, unchanging, and hanging over them like a guillotine.

Comments [22]

RDavS from Wisconsin USA

Interesting, but totally predictable unresolved debate by those who swallow whole the dogma of evolution and refuse to consider the explanation given almost 2000 years ago. While the study of animals is interesting, it does not really provide answers that can be fully applied to human beings. Humans are not just biology, DNA, and the result of upbringing, however significant all of these are. Humans are also spiritual beings. The tendency toward violence might be magnified by the social environment in which one matures, but its source is the "infection" of the human spirit with sin. It's part of human nature, yes, but not so much the physical nature, but the spiritual. The Bible, which so many elitist "scientists" reject, calls it "the sinful nature", and Christian theology has called it "original sin". The Bible also identifies how this in-born nature can best be countered. It's not that only Christians can counter it, for to a degree so have people of other religions (and some "Christians" haven't done so well as they should), but there's more to it than just DNA and upbringing.

Jun. 14 2014 05:10 PM
Rachmiel Langer from Boston, MA

Thanks for the interview with Richard Wrangham. I've heard people dismiss the baboon story as a (non-)urban myth!

Take heart, Mr. Wrangham. People read the article and were inspired or at least intrigued. Charlie King wrote a great political protest folk song based on the story:

IF BABOONS CAN WORK IT OUT…
© 2004 Charlie King Pied Asp Music (BMI)

CHO: Are you ready for a better way to be?
There's an answer swinging in our family tree
Everybody lives more fully when there isn't any bully
If Baboons can work it out then so can we

Act one, a culinary bungle in the wilds of Kenya
A tourist camp there in the jungle serves a toxic menu
They throw their garbage in a heap, the Alpha Baboon males compete
The prize they win is poison meat, they die like Alpha men do (CHO)

Act two, the female ratio doubles in the ape assembly
Surviving males who want no trouble take their places humbly
Instead of dominance and subjection, mutual grooming! Group affection!
It's the natural selection for this Baboon family (CHO)

Act three, now twenty years have passed, they're still cooperating
New males arrive, they're learning fast: "No fighting, we're all dating!"
Stress is lower. Hearts are stronger. Loving more and living longer.
Hop in line and join the conga, time for celebrating

Now a human bully's harder to defeat
I mean, you can't just send the White House poison meat!
But you can vote, sign a petition, organize a coalition
Hey hey! Ho ho! We say Rumsfeld's got to go!

'Cuz everybody lives more fully when there isn't any bully
If Baboons can work it out then so can…
Bush and Cheney? What a quandary, better put your trust in Gandhi
If Baboons can work it out then so can…
Popeye's eating all that spinach, shoulda voted for Kucinich
If Baboons can work it out then so can…
Him & her and you & me, as smart as any chimpanzee
If Baboons can work it out then so can we

The song is on Charlie's "On the Journey" album.

Jun. 14 2014 04:23 PM
menotq from new england

Thank you for this podcast! I was disappointed in so many who answered wars will last forever. Found it interesting & hopeful the few who answered positively sounded young [assumption] & I find this a good sign. btw I'm 62. The author who sent his alpha story into the foreign news rag [that politicians often read] that never rec.d' one response; just goes to show you how superficial our politicians have become.
The Stu story was also great. Shame on the people who are so quick to judge another man's moccasins they've never walked in and kudos to all the towns people who supported him/her. Especially to the hetero men who wore dresses! Support human beings not personal individuals manifestos.

Jun. 14 2014 02:55 PM
arslonga vitabrevis from USA

“Where are your women” is what Cherokee Chief Attakullakulla(http://forms.msvu.ca/atlantis/vol/292pdf/292intro.PDF) would say and Native Americans welcomed settlers onto their continent, they had no need to change or control others, yet their peaceful acceptance and independence was their ultimate doom. And humans are different than baboons, when a child is born into trauma and crisis it is very difficult to change their behavior. http://childtrauma.org/ I am hoping that we are in the midst of an unseen evolution of the brain like when we went beyond the reptilian brain, (or did we???), kind of like how bacteria multiply so much they change their environment at a critical mass, maybe we will evolve at a critical mass. Can we do that quickly do you think? I know we are currently programmed by both nature and nurture, the product of our hard wiring and also that adaptability is the key to survival, will we be able to handle the crowded and diverse world that sits around the corner? Will Putin be able to stay out of the Ukraine? There is a whole other study group for you Robert Sapolsky. Do a study on that guy for me, will you?

Jun. 14 2014 01:50 AM
John from here

So, this food the babs were eating - tainted with hormones or other additives which tinker with the baboon brain ?

Jan. 04 2013 08:33 PM
irene brown from Traverse city, MI

Listen to show on WIAA, Interlochen Mich. Very interesting material presented in interesting format. I question why you think you neeed to add the background music that many times covers the narrator. Not all of us need the extra stimulation. Try just presenting the good information without the embellishments. Keep up the good work.

Oct. 23 2012 05:05 PM
vanessa d from las vegas, nv

War is inevitable UNTIL we learn to rewire our brains; this is in the beginning stages of neuroscience research and knowledge right now.

Oct. 20 2012 07:38 PM
John from St. Louis, MO

I just listened to the set-up to this podcast with the question: "Will humans ever stop fighting wars?" I do not find it surprising that it receives a negative/pessimistic answer. I would be surprised if most people answered negatively to the question: "CAN humans ever stop fighting wars?" I think that can change the way we think about our nature, which is that we can go beyond our immediate need. It would be interesting to go about the survey in that manner.

Feb. 03 2012 02:35 PM
Sara

I think, rather than male vs. female, the more basic question is this: is violence a symptom of nature or nurture? I think this story argues for nurture while the fox story connected to it in the original Radiolab episode argues for nature.

Feb. 02 2012 08:57 PM
Bob Minder

What happens to baboons in zoos? What is the scene in a 'troupe' at the san diego zoo? why would this not come up for consideration in the program?

Aug. 21 2011 05:57 AM
Bridget from Sweden

I just listened to this, years later, and am intrigued! Something I was looking for here in the comments is this: is there any more explanation of what happens when the male baboons from the 'peaceful' troop do their wandering and become part of another troop? Do they become violent? Is there any noticeable difference? To me that is the most interesting, do creatures who are raised in a peaceful environment stay so, or do they become violent as the new community requires?

Apr. 14 2011 01:50 PM
sa-weet from US

In this video, a bonobo society is female-dominated and peaceful, whereas a chimp society is the opposite.
http://video.pbs.org/video/1366159555

"New research suggests that women from countries with healthier populations prefer more feminine-looking men."
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704100604575145810050665030.html?mod=WSJ_article_RecentColumns

Apr. 16 2010 12:15 AM
Sandra from Cleveland, OH

Dr. Sapolsky guessed that it was the female baboons who initiated the change. However, if a lesser male had jumped up at some point and declared himself king again, the whole violent hierarchy may have been reestablished. To me, this means that it was the work of both groups of baboons that preserved a peaceful society.

Holding up female humans as our only hope for peace denies the responsibility that men have (as 50% of our populace) to also work for peace. I think it also wrongly assumes that the only thing holding us women back from establishing a peaceful world is men. Unlike female baboons, who lived in constant fear of violence if they try to subvert the male hierarchy, female humans have much more free will in selecting a mate. We also have enough mass to elect leaders who refuse to submit to war and violence.

It's going to take the coordinated effort of ALL humans to make lasting cultural changes.

Mar. 12 2010 01:17 PM
Robyn from Anchorage, Alaska

The Dalai Lama has said that western women (women!) are going to save the world. Women in all cultures have a higher investment in peace rather than war. Women don't get rich or feel powerful in war. They lose children, homes, security, and often their lives in war. Listen to the women -- not the women who have scrabbled to the top of the male dominance pile, but the women working for peace.

Nov. 24 2009 02:40 PM
Doug Lipman from Marshfield, MA

The New Baboon segment suggests that in baboons, behavior is based on culture, and that culture can be changed by changing how adolescent baboons are treated.

In the absence of male baboons who were treated aggressively as youth, the female baboons pass on a culture based more on cooperation.

This is vastly hopeful for human society, and pokes a hole in the purportedly scientific view that human aggression is genetic and so can only, at best, be redirected constructively, never truly reduced.

A side note: listening to this segment last night, a friend joked, "It's the women who do it right!" I think her joke refers to a common idea among feminists: that women are somehow inherently more cooperative than males, even apart from cultural influences.

I note that the female baboons who passed on the culture of cooperation were presumably treated cooperatively as young females. If they were to be exposed to the same aggression normally directed at young male baboons, I believe, they would exhibit (and pass on) aggressive behaviors themselves.

Therefore, let's not be tempted to replace "genetic determinism" about aggressive behavior with a similar determinism about sex-role behavior. While there may be genetically-based tendencies toward certain behaviors in baboons or people, we should not assume that such tendencies always overpower cultural forces - whether the forces are directed toward males or toward females.

Nov. 22 2009 06:46 AM
Bryan J Busch from Dallas, TX

We found out what that song was, thanks to the Shazam iPhone app.

It's "Sam Ba No" by Henri Bowane. Here's the MP3 on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/2NFd7k

Nov. 19 2009 07:37 AM
Rick from Cincinnati

I thought the end of the New Baboon segment was very interesting. Robert Sapolsky wrote a paper based on his observations to Foreign Affairs Magazine and lamented he received no response.

I think this magazine is being read by alpha males. Of course they don’t wish to upset the status quo. If you are the alpha male life is pretty good. Maybe the idea of replacing all of the current politicians all at once with new faces could lead to a better world!

Oct. 27 2009 03:49 PM
Hal Pepinsky from Worthington, Ohio

WHEN BABOONS STOP FIGHTING
Hal Pepinsky, pepinsky@indiana.edu, pepinsky.blogspot.com
October 18, 2009

I just heard a WNYC Radio Lab segment on “new baboons.” Stanford med’s Robert Sapolsky reports that a group of a typically aggressive/warlike changed in six days in a way that has lasted for twenty years in the group.
What happened was that the males fought to bring home the bacon and assorted treats from a new human treasure to fight over, a human waste dump. All the guys who brought that food home, and presumably their women and children, got tuberculosis from meat there and died horrible deaths within six weeks.
Within six days, Sapolsky et al. recorded that newborn males were grooming like females, and haven’t reverted since; suddenly male capacity for gentleness prevails with female sexual preference.
I’m committed to the view that changing course in social relations is the quickest way to change the course of all our relations. We are well aware that species are becoming extinct many times over in a single human lifetime. In the case of these baboons, the women whom tuberculosis spared must have been those who had had to settle for male losers. Suddenly, all the bully families were gone. Women no longer had to hook up with bullies to feed themselves and their children. Of course the gene pool didn’t shift much in a single generation. It isn’t about genes alone, it’s about how empires and all rise and fall under environmental circumstance.
Darwin concluded that the species and ecosystems that survived most the most diverse, so that what wiped out one vulnerable group (in this case the meanest most powerful baboon bullies on that particular turf) gave rise to women’s appreciation that “effeminate” boys and men were a lot more pleasant to live with than life with the bullies had been. So why go back?....love and peace, hal

Oct. 18 2009 05:18 PM
TM from Brooklyn, NY

This piece is excellent, and seems the support Germaine Greer's rather hopeful theoretic solution to of our problematic "alpha-male" socio-political culture:

"I do think that women could make politics irrelevant; by a kind of spontaneous cooperative action the like of which we have never seen; which is so far from people’s ideas of state structure or viable social structure that it seems to them like total anarchy — when what it really is, is very subtle forms of interrelation that do not follow some heirarchal pattern which is fundamentally patriarchal. The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy but fraternity, yet I think it’s women who are going to have to break this spiral of power and find the trick of cooperation."
— Germaine Greer

It strikes me as sad that for women to be competitively powerful in this Country, they are encouraged to play the same game of dominance and aggression. A greater shift is possible, and it does seem logical that it requires only a single generation's removal from the patterns of patriarchy, gender role, and rewarded aggression that plague our culture, and are introduced at a very young age. Even considering a genetic predisposition in men, which I think is conveniently overestimated, women can and must refuse to be a part of this continuance and instruction.

Further, in the aggressive male culture, mutual male grooming is highly rare, as this piece points out in observation of apes. Of course, this is entirely true of our culture also, and I take, for instance, the large resistance to the "threat" of gay marriage. If we encourage men to take care of each other, clearly the old way is threatened. I hope we do, and I hope it is.

Oct. 16 2009 06:36 PM
HunterJE from Kirkland, WA

The insistance on a genetic change to prove that it's a meaningful, lasting change doesn't make sense to me. You probably couldn't point to a gene that says "agriculture" in the human genome (or "city building" or "monetary economy" or any other cultural behavior), but to say "humans don't farm," or "farming is just a cultural quirk" doesn't very well reflect the history of humanity as we know it. It's fine to say "We don't know for sure that a lasting change has occurred," since we've only got a few decades of observation, but to automatically discount any non-genetic change misses the point entirely.

Oct. 16 2009 05:40 PM
Irene Cardenas from Minneapolis, MN

This explains why men put women down, calling them "crazy witches." If they don't act dominant, they fear disempowerment by alpha males. They follow the alpha male's example, dominating homosexuals and other cultures.

People are dynamic. All people have the capacity for aggression, e.g. for self-defense. "As we go about our days... cortisol and adrenaline go up and down... The target organs of stress hormones likewise dance to the beat": www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/science/18angier.html

Can we keep aspects of the medical industry influenced by alpha males away from babies? Are children birthed by mid-wives less aggressive than those birthed by procedures that traumatize babies' bodies? Nurturing is about environment. Genes, though a focus of the dominant medical industry, turn on or off based on environment. Cancer cells heal in healthy environments: see my link to "Thinking Outside the Cell" at well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/18/real-men-get-prostate-cancer/?apage=5

In cultures where women have not been equally present in public or business, alpha male influences have escalated into abusive procedures and laws.

Oct. 10 2009 03:51 PM
Jeff Tinkelman from United States

Mr. Wrangham (Dr.?) may have missed the point. Perhaps what the baboons are hard wired to do is pass along learned behaviors, not specific behaviors. Maybe they are all so aggressive because that is what they learned, in order to achieve superiority in mating and food acquisition. Maybe after this tribe changed its behavior due to the experience of the garbage and illness, they just passed along a different set of learned behaviors. That would explain why it's still going strong after all these years. It gives me hope, at least. I know my mate is hoping I can change.

Oct. 10 2009 03:08 AM

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