Aug 19, 2010

New Baboon

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.

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JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, you ready?




JAD: All right. Let's open the show today ...


LULU MILLER: Test, test, test.


JAD: ... on a sunny street corner in New Jersey.


LULU: So where are we now?


JOHN HORGAN: We are on Washington Street, which is the main thoroughfare in Hoboken.


JAD: It's a nice day in Hoboken. People are out and about after work.


JOHN HORGAN: Is that sangria? What are you guys drinking here?


JAD: And we're here with a guy, his name is John Horgan.


JOHN HORGAN: I'm a science journalist.


JAD: He's also a teacher.


LULU: Ooh, it is hot!


JAD: And John is out today with our producer Lulu Miller, doing what he often does.


JOHN HORGAN: Hey, here comes someone!


JAD: Which is to go up to someone he doesn't know ...


JOHN HORGAN: Excuse me, sir. We're doing a survey. It'll only take a minute at most.


MAN #1: A minute I can give you.


JAD: And he asks them this one question.


JOHN HORGAN: Here's the question: will humans ever stop fighting wars once and for all?


MAN #1: No, because of greed and one-upmanship.


JAD: To explain, John has been asking this question, "Will humans ever stop fighting wars" for years. Because for him this question, it's not just about war. It gets at something really basic. Do we feel we can change who we are? In any case, the first time it popped out of his mouth it was 2003, and a friend had asked him to give a talk at a church just a few days after the first invasion of Iraq.


JOHN HORGAN: And so here I was in this church, and I can remember the mood was very somber. I was determined to try to make people feel that, okay, this is a setback, but still you've got to believe that peace is possible. And I tried to list all the reasons.


JAD: And as he was making his case and getting worked up, he looked at the 60 or so people who were there in the audience, he said, "All right, how many of you here believe that war will end someday?"


JOHN HORGAN: And I think one or two people raised their hands.


JAD: Out of 60. And John thought, "Wait, is this really who we are?"


JOHN HORGAN: And so that's actually when I started reading as much as I can about all these things, and dug up some surveys from the 1980s.


JAD: What he found was that about 20 years ago, people were asking this question.


JOHN HORGAN: Do you think war will ever end?


JAD: Taking surveys. Now granted, they were not the most scientific of surveys, but what the results seem to indicate is that we used to be optimistic back in the '80s.


JOHN HORGAN: Only one in three thought that war is inevitable.


LULU: Huh. So it was a minority.




JAD: Whereas today ...


JOHN HORGAN: Will humans ever stop fighting wars once and for all?


JAD: If you take that question to the streets of Hoboken as we did, you will find ...


MAN #2: No.


WOMAN #1: No.


MAN #3: No.


MAN #4: No.


WOMAN #2: No.


MAN #5: No.


WOMAN #3: Umm ...


JAD: About nine out of ten people say no.


WOMAN #4: Yes.


MAN #6: Yeah.


WOMAN #5: I think so.


WOMAN #6: No.


MAN #7: No.


MAN #8: No.


MAN #9: Never.


MAN #10: No.


MAN #11: No.




MAN #12: No!


JAD: Now depressingly, the worst part is that when he asked them the next question, "Why do you think this?" invariably, he gets something like ...


WOMAN #7: Because I think there's a human nature is to—for greed and to always want more.


JAD: It's just ...


WOMAN #8: Human nature.


WOMAN #9: A lot of people are big dumb animals, and they're just gonna keep fighting over useless things.


MAN #13: It's in our genes, it's just the way people are.


MAN #14: And I don't think we're ever gonna learn.


JOHN HORGAN: Why do you say that?


MAN #14: I just think that it's too ingrained in our human nature. So ...


ROBERT: So ...


JAD: So ...


ROBERT: So ...


JAD: So ...


JAD: So we want to challenge that last statement.


MAN #14: ... too ingrained in our human nature.


JAD: That one. Okay, we know some things have been handed down to us from our primate ancestors. Violence, maybe. Who knows? Question is: how ingrained is that stuff?


ROBERT: Well, yeah. I mean, if you think that we have inherited something, yeah, what can we do about it? Are we stuck, or ...


JAD: Or can we change if we make the right choices?




JAD: So what we've got for you this hour are three stories ...


ROBERT: Where choice, individual choice challenges destiny.


JAD: Right.


ROBERT: Maybe. [laughs]


JAD: We hope.




JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. Stick around.


New Baboon


JAD: To get things started, let's just take the question that was just in the air: are we human beings violent forever and forever and forever, amen? Is that just who we are?


ROBERT: That's a good question.


JAD: It's a good question, right? And the people who usually say yes ...




JAD: ... say yes because—in part, because of our ancestors.


ROBERT: We're like them, they're like us. That's how it goes.


JAD: On the other hand, let me tell you a story.


ROBERT: I was hoping there would be another hand.


JAD: Yes. Do you remember this guy?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I'm Robert Sapolsky. I'm ...


ROBERT: Oh, yeah. That's Robert Sapolsky.


JAD: We've had him on the show a couple of times. He's a neuroscientist, spends most of the year at Stanford.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: ... being a lab rat scientist, doing neurobiology in the lab.


JAD: But in the summers ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Most summers I go and spend time in east Africa, in the Serengeti studying wild baboons there.


ROBERT: Why—what is it—what is he working on? What's his reason to be there?


JAD: Well, Sapolsky's interested in studying stress. The effect that stress has on the body. And it turns out, baboons are a perfect source of data because they're always under stress. You know, the one thing we know about baboons, and have known forever, is that they fight ...




JAD: ... constantly.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Not just metaphorically, but literally have been the textbook example of a highly-aggressive, male-dominated hierarchical society. Because these animals hunt, because they live in these aggressive troops on the savanna, parentheses just like we humans used to, and thus we evolved very similarly, they have a constant baseline level of aggression which inevitably spills over into their social lives.


JAD: Which is why he studies them. So what Sapolsky does basically, is he goes into the bush and he watches.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Here are field notebooks. And there's a floor of them there. And a whole shelf there.


JAD: His office is covered with these field notebooks, each one containing detailed notes of who groomed who ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And who's not getting along with who, and who's messing around with who in the bushes.


JAD: And he tells the following story of a particular moment in his baboon watching which completely changed his life, changed how he sees the world. It happened about 30 years ago. Sapolsky was a young guy just out of grad school studying his first troop.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: My—my first baboons.


JAD: A troop he really loved.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: These were animals I was very connected with.


JAD: In most ways, it was a pretty average group.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah, your basic baboon troop. The females were highly affiliated with each other. They had a very staple ranking system. The males meanwhile, highly aggressive, dumping on each other.


JAD: Because that's just what males do.


ROBERT: Right.


JAD: Or so he thought.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay, mid-80s, a big boom in tourism in Kenya. Wonders for the economy, lots of new lodges, lots of lodge expansions. And there happened to be the next territory over, a tourist lodge.


JAD: And this one particular lodge, he says, had gotten really big really fast.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And during that time, the lodge greatly expanded their garbage dump.


JAD: Which means basically, that they just dug a hole out behind the lodge.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And then each day, a tractor came out with the leftovers and dumped it there.


JAD: So what we're talking about here, if you can nasally imagine, is a big steaming pile of trash, half-eaten food baking in the sun, smell wafting in the breeze for miles and miles and into the nostrils of baboons everywhere. So it was not long before a troop of baboons—not Sapolsky's, but one nearby ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Discovered the garbage, and just started feeding on it. And here they are eating leftover desserts and chicken whatevers.


JAD: To find a dump full of food must be to a baboon like—like, wandering into heaven.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's manna in the wilderness.


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So this troop almost immediately shifted their entire behavior to they just slept in the trees above the garbage dump, and instead of getting up at six in the morning to start foraging, they would waddle down around two minutes of nine. And the tractor would show up at nine o'clock and dump the food, and they would have 20 minutes of sheer frenzy. And then they'd go back to sort of being couch potatoes.


JAD: And this is how it went for a while.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So they're over there living off of garbage, and somehow some of the males in my troop figure this out.


JAD: These males think, "We got to get in on this. We've got to go over there and take their food."


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: What emerged was each morning, a bunch of males would run a kilometer or so to the garbage dump and fight their way in to get some of the garbage.


JAD: So every morning there'd be a showdown, basically.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. And they would come back with canine slashes and stuff like that. And ...


JAD: But they'd also have drumsticks, cakes, hamburgers. And this ritual, says Sapolsky, went on for years.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And then a few years into it, I got word that there were a couple of baboons in this garbage dump troop that looked awful and something was wrong with them.


JAD: Some guys from the lodge had called him and said, "Hey, you better get down here and look at this." And when he got there, what he saw was horrible.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Animals with rotting hands walking on their elbows. I mean, just really bad. So trying to figure out what this is about, get veterinarians involved. And we finally figure out it's tuberculosis.


JAD: Turns out some infected meat had been thrown in the dump and then eaten by the baboons. And this was really bad news because while tuberculosis in people is a really slow moving disease ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: TB kills non-human primates in weeks, and it's a nightmare of a disease for them.


JAD: In just a short time, the garbage dump troop was completely decimated. Not to mention that the tough guys in Sapolsky's troop, the ones that had gone to the dump every morning? They got it too.


JAD: They have the same kind of rotting hands, and ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: They all die of it.


JAD: Oh, wow. That must've been really kind of tragic to witness.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: This was not a good period for me. You know, these were my animals. I had—I had grown up with these guys.


JAD: But, you know, while Sapolsky was heartbroken now that half the alpha males in his troop were dead, he did notice some strange things started to happen. Changes.


ROBERT: How did they change?


JAD: Well, grooming spiked.


ROBERT: Grooming. So you and I sit on a branch, and I take little fleas out of your fur.


JAD: Yes. Well, you know, usually when a female grooms a male, the males never reciprocate. But suddenly, they were. Even weirder ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You saw adult males sitting in contact with each other and grooming each other.




JAD: You know how—how rare that is? It'd be like, if suddenly in the middle of round five of a heavyweight bout, Mike Tyson just decided to stop boxing ...


ROBERT: And nuzzle his opponent. [laughs]


JAD: Or comb Evander Holyfield's hair.


ROBERT: [laughs]


JAD: It would be like that.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: If you're a baboonologist, it would have been less shocking if these guys had wings, or were photosynthetic or something. Up to then I had seen, like, 30 seconds of male-male grooming in the course of 15 years.


JAD: But at the time, Sapolsky kind of wrote it off. This was just some freak event that wasn't gonna last. So he actually stopped studying them.


ROBERT: Even after that big investment of time?


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Scientifically, they were ruined by such a non-natural event removing half the study subjects.


JAD: Oh, as a scientist it became less interesting to you.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You know, that was the rationale. It was just too painful to go and watch these guys. So I moved to the other end of the reserve about 40 miles away and started with a new troop there. And for six years, I would not go anywhere near this corner of the park, because I just didn't want to be there.


JAD: Now fast forward six years, and we come to the moment that really changed things for him, really flipped him into a different way of thinking. And it happened kind of by accident.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So about six years later, I'm out there for the first time with who was soon destined to become my wife, and decided I wanted to kind of show her where I had grown up. What part of the park ...


JAD: Aww, you wanted to go to the old haunt.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah, basically. So went there, and the troop was there.


JAD: And they were acting pretty much the same as before: lots of grooming, not so much fighting.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And isn't that nice? And they're still, like, this great remnant troop.


JAD: And he's sitting there with his wife just pointing out all the different baboons. "Oh, there's Tiva, and there's—I don't know, whoever." And then it hits him.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: This epiphanal whatever.


JAD: Wait a second!


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: There was only one male left who had been there at the time of the TB outbreak.


JAD: Dun dun dun!


ROBERT: I don't follow this. What? One male?


JAD: Stick with me for just one second and you will get it.




JAD: The thing about male baboons, first thing you gotta understand, is around puberty, the males get a little antsy.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: They get itchy, they're bored and they just pick up and leave. So in a troop, any of the adult males grew up someplace else.


JAD: Which meant that these new guys that were coming into Sapolsky's troop, were coming in from the outside, from the old world order.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The jerky, real dog-eat-dog world out there.


JAD: So you got to figure these new males are coming in with old expectations that they're gonna have to kick ass to be respected, which would mean that this whole kumbaya situation should evaporate the moment these guys show up. But it didn't. It stuck.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Oh my God! The new guys are learning we don't do stuff like that here.


JAD: And if the new guys are learning a new way, well, that means the old way, the violent way, isn't the only way.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And this—this floored me. It was one of those moments. It will be one of the three or four best science moments in my life. The key question was how do these guys unlearn their entire childhood culture of aggression, blah, blah, and somehow learn we don't do stuff like that around here?




JAD: Well, what?


ROBERT: Well, how do they unlearn something that was supposedly built in?


JAD: Oh. Well, he doesn't really know exactly.




JAD: But, but but but, here's Sapolsky's hunch. Here's his hunch. And this is really cool. It may have to do with that precarious moment when the new guy comes in. Now normally what happens in this sort of status quo, is that the new guy arrives and it's just a really bad experience for him.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's awful. I mean, you look at them and you just identify with, like, freshman year at college or something. They're completely peripheral. Every male who's higher ranking dumps on them.


JAD: And even worse, this freshman baboon is completely ignored by the ladies.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And you just sit there and say, "Somebody groom him. My God! I went all sophomore year until—somebody groom him! Come on!"


ROBERT: Why don't they groom him?


JAD: Well, because if they did ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Some adult male would have attacked them.




JAD: So the ladies hang back while he's out there biting and clawing and trying to scratch his way in. And what you've got here is a cycle that has existed for a long, long time. But if you make one small change, just remove the alpha male, take him out of the equation, suddenly ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The females are more relaxed, and more likely to take a social gamble of reaching out to somebody new. The key thing is the females.


JAD: Sapolsky thinks that it's all about timing. If the females can get to the new guy early enough, everything's different.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's remarkable. In your typical troop, it's three months on the average before the first female grooms you. In this troop? Six days.


JAD: Get out! Six days as compared to three months?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. And a world in which from day one as an adolescent male you're treated better, something about the aggressiveness melts away.


ROBERT: The thing though is, Jad, that before we get too carried away, we do have to ask the question just how permanent this change is as nice as it is. So I explained this whole story that you've just told to a professor at Harvard named Richard Wrangham.


RICHARD WRANGHAM: Yup. Professor Wrangham is here.


ROBERT: He's an evolutionary biologist. Studies chimps, particularly. So I asked him, well, okay, you've heard this story about the baboons. What do you think?


RICHARD WRANGHAM: Yeah. No, it's a nice example of the potential for some change. Clearly we should put boundaries on it. You know, lots of baboons have been sighted across Africa, and this sort of example has never been found in a natural context. But ...


ROBERT: What do you mean? Aren't these guys wild baboons that just happened upon a garbage dump?


RICHARD WRANGHAM: Yeah, it's just not a very natural context to have humans provide food that leads to several males dying.


ROBERT: But that means that I could imagine going on a helicopter all over Africa, shooting all the alpha males, and then giving all the ladies a chance to create a different baboon culture. And what I guess I'm wondering is do you think, in an absurd situation like that, that the baboonery might change its essential nature?


RICHARD WRANGHAM: I don't think it'll change it's essential nature. I can see that there can be a cultural influence that may last a little bit of time, but the larger influence clearly is the set of genes that produce a particular kind of brain. A baboon is basically a baboon until you get some kind of genetic change. And that is something that Sapolsky has not seen there.


ROBERT: So Professor Wrangham wants a genetic change to make sure that this is really real. Permanent.


JAD: Yeah, but here's the thing. I don't know if this constitutes a genetic change, but it has been 20 years.


ROBERT: Really?


JAD: Yes. 20 years. And Sapolsky's original baboon troop is still operating in this peaceful mode, even though dozens of new males have come and gone at this point.




JAD: And the idea that something that was thought to be so unchangeable could change and change quickly and then stay changed as a result of something so airy and undefinable as culture, well, that has caused Robert Sapolsky, dare I say it, to hope.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Absolutely. And it's not something that I do by nature.


JAD: [laughs] You're not a hopeful guy by nature.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No, not at all.


JAD: In fact, this story got him so hopeful, he decided to send it to Foreign Affairs magazine, which is a magazine read by a lot of politicians.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. And they went for it.


JAD: And so we had to ask him: after it was published ...


ROBERT: ... did anyone write you back?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No, basically not. I basically heard nothing from anyone.


ROBERT: Nothing from anyone?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yes. Big yawning silence. I'm sure George Bush and Cheney read it each evening and tremble at its implications. But no, basically, as far as I can tell, it was a huge waste of time for me to write it.




JAD: Well, we read it.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Thanks. Thanks. My mother didn't, even.


JAD: Radiolab will continue in a moment.


[RICHARD WRANGHAM: Hello, this is Richard Wrangham. Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting ...]


[JOHN HORGAN: ... and the National Science Foundation. Hi, it's John Horgan. Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by National Public Radio.]

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