By Madronna Holden
In her book, Almost Human, Shirley Strum explains her career choice of working with baboons, indicating that baboon intelligence brings them closer to humans than many other primates. She also notes the negative connotation of calling someone a “baboon”– though when all is said and done, it seems that baboons have something going for them that certain humans do not.
In her decade of research with baboons, Strum did things her predecessors had not. She got out of her jeep and followed the baboons on their daily rounds on foot, and she learned to identify each baboon as an individual and as a member of a multi-generation family—and she recorded baboon behavior accordingly. In turn, her meticulous observations told her that the male dominance theory of baboon society she inherited from other researchers just wasn’t holding up. In fact, her data indicated that female social alliances rather than male dominance were the stable center of baboon troops.
A young male might use aggression to hold a physical place on the outskirts of a troop he wanted to join—but only in the short term and because he had no other alternatives. Often such a male would single out a female, making subtle overtures to her for up to a year until she accepted him as a “friend”. At that point, he had an inroad into the troop and dropped his aggressive stance. After all, aggression earned him none of the social goods of baboon society—no grooming, no ability to lead the group to feeding or sleeping places—and absolutely no sex. Indeed, these new tough guys were subject to complete social isolation until they were able to trade in their aggression for the alliances that gave them connection and belonging.
Though individual males or females might choose to fight or manipulate others in particular situations, it was assuredly not the physically dominant males who ran things.
Strum’s observations are supported by DNA studies that indicate that the males who pass on their genes among baboons are not the aggressive ones—but the ones who gain alliances with the most female “friends”. Observations of wolves and deer expose parallel differences between fighters and breeders in these groups. Observations of the red deer of Ireland, for instance, indicate that while certain males are busy locking horns, others are busy breeding. One might find aggression in such groups if one is looking for it—but the winners of physical fights are not to be the ones passing on their genes. Indeed, locking horns may be nature’s way of taking the most aggressive individuals out of the gene pool of social animals—as in the case of a mild-mannered wolf whom observers christened “Casanova” because he was busy breeding while other males were busy fighting.
So are we in modern industrial societies smarter than such creatures? Not, I would argue, if we persist in pressing strategies of dominance that separate rich from poor, men from woman and humans from nature—in the face of the historical fact that human empires have barely eked out a few centuries before collapsing whereas societies based on cooperation have survived for thousands of years. And we are not very smart if we use domination to amass wealth and power to the neglect of other social goods, like knowledge and belonging.
In comparison with flexible baboon behavior, we humans often seem to be stuck in a rut—failing to exercise our adaptable potential. We even fail to take advantage of the science that exposes alternatives to the dead end strategy of simple dominance. Strum herself was baffled at the way in which her careful research was originally met with virulence—or conspicuously ignored—by other primate researchers. She paired with philosopher Bruno Latour to examine the worldview underlying primate research, and together they postulated a “myth of human origins” that drove much of such research– in which researchers were basically finding what they were programmed to find by their own cultural values. Their resistance to new perspectives followed the pattern detailed by Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which documents how scientific paradigms in the history of Western science have shifted only after the worldviews that birthed them shifts. Until that point, scientists reshaped their data to fit their worldviews rather than using their data to expand their worldviews.
The “myth of human origins” in domination-based societies tells us that domination over others is an effective strategy for ensuring survival in the natural world. But in fact—as other species show us—nature is more complicated. Though domination-based societies might yield power and wealth to the ones on top, the dominator stance stymies long term survival. Since the human dominator cannot both live within the world and rule it from above, he tends to be ignorant of both the world he separates himself from, and the results of his actions upon it. One can hardly make decent decisions in the face of such ignorance.
Indeed, those who hold to the domination stance that goes hand in hand with the historical collapse of human empires have something to learn from young male baboons who work persistently and cleverly to replace domination with belonging.
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