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Update: 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.


Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Comments [20]

Andrea simpson from Courtland, AL

Y'all I heard this story on the road-I don't usually listen to radio lab. The host said to go online and get an update on the baboon behavior but I can't find it. Any help appreciated. Regards,

Jul. 31 2017 11:00 PM
Schmoo from Seattle

Have some hope that AI will save the planet for other, more deserving species. Maybe domesticate humans as a science experiment and keep a few of the "nice" ones as as pets.

Jul. 29 2017 05:37 PM
Claire from Philadelphia

While listening to this show, I couldn't help but relate these events to those that have taken place in Northern Ireland over the past 40 years, their are many similarities.

Feb. 25 2017 09:32 PM
Anna P from Philadelphia

"Human nature" isn't really "human" nature. It's "man" nature. Yet....

Unsurprisingly, this segment, as relayed by all males, missed the obvious point: why are we studying male aggression? Why don't we study and focus on and devote attention and scholarship to female LACK of aggression?

I kept waiting and waiting for the "aha" moment in the show: "Aha! We need to learn lessons from the female baboons, we need to learn from this moment that we should integrate females into more positions of power in our society to effectuate widespread peace...if male aggression is instinctual then we need to seriously reconsider deference to men in positions of power..."

But no. That moment never came. Because it would require men taking stock of themselves. It would require a serious critique of masculinity and its harms. And that would be truly revolutionary.

Apr. 28 2016 03:36 PM
Tim Chapp from Minneapolis

With the question about the inevitability of war, I kept waiting for the story to discuss resource allocation and sustainable lifestyles as precursors to peace. To me, it seems clear that societal composure is highly dependent upon how difficult it is to survive. We hear about it every day in the once Fertile Crescent region, where long ago natural resources were squandered and abused (not that scarcity of resources is the only reason for strife in that region), and we heard about the same thing with the baboons who suddenly had bountiful feasts on a daily basis. More anecdotal than scientific, sure, but the anecdote is obvious and intuitive to anyone who has ever had to compete for fulfillment (the necessity of competition is a sorry, shortsighted take on the human condition, while it is obvious that cooperative efforts are the reason we have succeeded and flourished as a species, not competitive). The question of whether war will ever end seems obvious, especially given the extreme rate at which the human population grows and at which our non-renewable resources are disappearing. Either we very quickly figure out how to live sustainably (including some sort of conscientious means of managing human population levels), or the luxurious life as so many of us know it will end. The vast majority of people in the First World do not act like their actions matter on a global scale, but of course anyone who has taken calculus knows that many small things agglomerate into a massive effect. For example, most people who use gasoline allow their cars to idle for long periods for no good reason. Most also continue to accelerate even though the light is red and there are 6 cars stopped in front of them, and they never even consider taking a bus or bicycle, let alone taking their foot off the gas. If everyone simply started acting like burning gasoline is the ecosystem-destroying, air-poisoning, wasteful and shortsighted behavior that it is, we could easily reduce pollution levels significantly lower, and save our dwindling resources to actually build a sustainable transportation infrastructure, as one example. It really would not be hard; it only requires a massive shift of priorities. If we start acting like our actions matter, like we CAN bring peace into this world, we can ignite a social shift, and we may have hope. But more people who say they care are going to have to start acting like they care, as if all of the things they do, and all of the ways they spend money have an actual impact. The bottom line is this: If we can both figure out how to live sustainably, and also respect people who are different then us, peace will follow. If not, mankind is in for a very rude awakening. The good news is that both scenarios likely mean an end to war.

Jan. 29 2016 12:16 PM
Galo from Cuenca, Ecuador

Someone had mentioned this in the comments section of the original podcast, but:

Curious note, our closest evolutionary cousin is the chimp, right?

There are two types of chimpanzees, the common chimp, the one we normally see in movies. And the bonobo chimp.

We humans share 1.7 percent of our genetic material more closely with the common chimp and 1.6 percent more closely with the bonobos. Out of some 3 billion base pairs.

(Apparently less than 20,000 of those base pairs code for proteins in our body.)

There are videos online of the bonobo chimps, also know as the 'hippie' chimp, resolving their conflicts among themselves with, um... let's say with love. ::cough, cough::

At the same time, videos of the common chimp shows them walking shoulder to shoulder, almost like Romans, to make war to the neighboring troops.

It's speculated that when a river in Africa changed course one group of chimps found themselves on one side of it. The other, well, on the other side of the river. On one side of the river the chimps were exposed to other primates, like gorillas and orangutans. The other group wasn't.

The war that I mentioned between the common chimps, by the way, is in the style of Dr. Lecter, if you get me. (No exactly apt for kids to watch.)

Jan. 28 2016 12:18 PM
Alex from Washington (State)

Perhaps you should publish your monkey article to Inspire magazine. Maybe then you'll get in touch with the real problem in modern warfare.

Dec. 26 2015 02:09 AM
Victoria Rebeck from Nashville

You mean "fared," right? ;)

Dec. 21 2015 12:45 PM
Martha from San Francisco

This story, the baboon segment of the show, has really stayed with me. I was intrigued by how the Harvard professor focused on the garbage dump aspect and did not comment on what I thought was the real sea change: the decimation of alpha males due to an epidemic (true, the epidemic was brought on by the garbage), which resulted in a more female-based society. I have to say that I found the ending vague and unsatisfying — what do you mean by the "culture" which was lost? I wanted specifics. Did the baboons no longer interact with each other, is that what you meant? No grooming? No copulation? A society dying out? What were their habits now? The way it was related didn't sound terribly grim, I have to be honest. You mentioned males being shot because they were "seen" as a threat to the humans in the lodge — but were they really a threat? What was their behavior? A word or two about what the baboons were actually doing besides dumpster diving (and who can blame them) would have made the cultural change clearer.

Dec. 17 2015 07:19 PM
Kirby from Seattle, WA mean, *Robert* Sapolsky.... right? ;o)

Dec. 15 2015 06:43 PM
Jerry134 from Los Angeles

I caught this story in the middle, and as I thought about how it relates to terrorism (the current source of warfare) I couldn't help but make a connection between the prominence of the females in the baboon clan's peaceful period and the suppression of women in the violent regions of the Middle East.

Dec. 13 2015 07:23 PM
Zach from North Carolina

Recently a new term has been coined Epigenetics where what someone's immediate ancestors were subject to shows up in their offspring and further generations.

I immediately thought of this when listening to the story on the radio.

I only caught the end of the story so it may have been the case that Epigenetics was mentioned early on.

Dec. 13 2015 02:37 PM
Libby from Portland

I know, a huge chasm to leap from observations in Sapolsky's baboon troop behavior before and after the loss of the alpha males to humans in the modern world--but who can resist? To take just one variable, if we look at the different ways at least a significant percentage of middle class Americans have raised their children in the past 70 years, I think we can see some huge differences with regard to touch/grooming. The parents influenced by the work of BF Skinner in the late 40's and 50's probably did not touch or hold their children as much as parents who were influenced by Spock. Contrast both of these groups of parents with more recent parents, some of whom were certainly influenced by the works by Attachment Parenting advocates, for instance, TBerry Brazelton. True, it's impossible to trace a messy variable like this, but surely the impulse we can see in this country during the last 75 years to increase touching, holding-- even practicing infant massage--reflects some understanding of what effects "grooming" might have on the young-- both male and female. Perhaps epigenetics will reveal that increased touch encourages increases in some pro-social capacities not traditionally associated with alpha males. In other words, perhaps increased "grooming" in humans will increase the range of capacities and behavioral options available to alpha males--and females as well. Just a thought...

Dec. 13 2015 12:25 PM
Jim from San Diego

I find that scientists sometimes draw conclusions that are not necessarily in evidence - such as, we are selecting out for peacefulness and losing our violent nature - perhaps, we are just discovering our true inner nature as we find we no longer NEED to be so violent.

Like Dr. Eagleman's assertion that our brains have created our consciousness. Maybe. Maybe consciousness caused our brains to be what they are.

Dr, Fred Wolf's book, "The Conscious Atom," provides an interesting view.

Dec. 12 2015 06:45 PM
Alan Kelley from Los Angeles

Probably not want to underestimate the role of grooming. How did the new males learn so quickly? They were groomed immediately on arrival. They never had affection growing up in their old communities. How important is physical affection? Probably essential.
It's not going to work for human communities likely because we don't have that tradition of being touched.

Dec. 10 2015 03:12 AM
dogboy from Detroit

Sapolsky completely missed the most startling result of his observations. He concluded that his study was ruined by the long-term impact of the garbage dump but, in reality, his study was only refocused to one looking at what happens to vibrant community when it becomes dependent on handouts. The garbage dump became, essentially, a welfare program that eliminated the baboons' need to compete, hunt or "work." The result was the decimation of the community structure, and is a chilling illustration of how a dependency culture destroys the fabric of a society. Even the remaining males became anti-social and had to be destroyed. The similarity to what is happening in our inner cities is profound. I can understand Sapolsky being too close to his study to realize see it, but I am disappointed that Jad, ordinarily perceptive, didn't jump on this.

Nov. 11 2015 10:46 AM
Justin from Fargo, ND

Evander Holyfield does not have hair to brush...

Nov. 05 2015 11:43 AM
Hai Ku from New York City

Let's put down our guns.
Safety and peace are better.
Okay, you go first.

Oct. 28 2015 05:45 PM
Malachy Grange from Hawaii

Enjoyed the show, but the piece on Baboons fell far short of science. There were too many variables unaccounted for and no real control group. We didn't hear a summary of data obtained and data evaluated. Besides that, very intriguing story and speculations. One question I wanted to hear more of was how the 'peaceful' Baboon troop dealt with competition for resources and territory with other alpha male Baboon troops in the wild. Were the alpha-male -less troops able to defend themselves and survive? Were there more than one 'peaceful' troop and how did they deal with meeting other troops without the aggressive alpha male group? Would like to hear more about this and comments from evolutionary primate biologists.

Oct. 25 2015 08:12 PM
Jim from Atlanta

Another fascinating, expertly told story from Radiolab. Still, I kept waiting for someone to make the leap from alpha male to, as it were, alpha species. For in the end — right? — Sapolksy's troop ran up against Homo sapiens. With our guns, germs, and trash.

Oct. 23 2015 09:49 AM

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