Sunday, October 18, 2009

When Baboons Stop Fighting

Hal Pepinsky,,
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 species 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 of consumption.
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 are 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?
I don’t know where violence starts in any case. My old friend Bill Breeden has put it this way to students we taught together: We are born with the human nature of pooping in our diapers. We learn that we get along a lot better when we change. Sounds like these baboons to me.
We learn that life without pooping in our pants if we can help it is more pleasant that incontinence. So is life without bullies.
Back in the early seventies when I started teaching about social control and race for instance, geneticists I read and assigned recognized that nature and nurture are interactive. Thus, any point of entry into body function or choice is theoretically capable of proving equally effective in what is at all times at once a totally genetic, biological, psychological, social, economic, political problem. In a word, this is holism.
I was disappointed that both Sapolsky and Wrangham got off on a new technically driven genetics discourse that once more insists on separating nature from nurture. Baboons have shown themselves capable of making peace with violence, with differences as negligible in DNA as those among black, brown, yellow and red humans. I conclude that we all find social harmony and security preferable to aggression when aggression fails to keep up with evolving human circumstances. We just need to find and exploit opportunities to act accordingly—a process Bill Breeden calls guerrilla peacefare. Love and peace--hal

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