Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How humane can humans be? Primate lesssons.

Robert Sapolsky has written another essay in the vein of a Foreign Affairs article he published in 2006. The focus, again, is the balance between culture (character) and biology (temperament) in non-human primates.

When I read the essay I think of how much humans have apparently evolved in the past 40,000 years, and a series of studies over the past few years that have stripped us of claims to some unique form of cognition.

Emphases mine.

Greater Good Science Center

Peace Among Primates
by Robert M. Sapolsky

... as field studies of primates expanded, what became most striking was the variation in social practices across species. Yes, some primate species have lives filled with violence, frequent and varied. But life among others is filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and cooperative child rearing.

Patterns emerged. In less aggressive species, such as gibbons or marmosets, groups tend to live in lush rain forests where food is plentiful and life is easy. Females and males tend to be the same size, and the males lack secondary sexual markers such as long, sharp canines or garish coloring. Couples mate for life, and males help substantially with child care. In violent species, such as baboons and rhesus monkeys, the opposite conditions prevail.

... although human males might not be inflexibly polygamous or outfitted with bright red butts and six–inch canines designed for tooth–to–tooth combat, it was clear that our species had at least as much in common with the violent primates as with the gentle ones. "In their nature" thus became "in our nature." This was the humans–as–killer–apes theory popularized by the writer Robert Ardrey, according to which humans have as much chance of becoming intrinsically peaceful as they have of growing prehensile tails.

...After decades' more work, the picture has become quite interesting. Some primate species, it turns out, are indeed simply violent or peaceful, with their behavior driven by their social structures and ecological settings. More importantly, however, some primate species can make peace despite violent traits that seem built into their natures. The challenge now is to figure out under what conditions that can happen, and whether humans can manage the trick ourselves.

Two classic studies have shown that primates are somewhat independent from their "natures." In the early 1970s, a highly respected primatologist named Hans Kummer was working in a region of Ethiopia containing two species of baboons with markedly different social systems. Savanna baboons live in large troops, with plenty of adult females and males. Hamadryas baboons, in contrast, have a more complex and quite different multilevel society. When confronted with a threatening male, the females of the two species react differently: A hamadryas baboon placates the male by approaching him, whereas a savanna baboon can only run away if she wants to avoid injury.

Kummer conducted a simple experiment, trapping an adult female savanna baboon and releasing her into a hamadryas troop and trapping an adult female hamadryas and releasing her into a savanna troop. The females who were dropped in among a different species initially carried out their species–typical behavior, a major faux pas in the new neighborhood. But gradually, they absorbed the new rules. How long did this learning take? About an hour. In other words, millennia of genetic differences separating the two species, a lifetime of experience with a crucial social rule for each female—and a miniscule amount of time to reverse course completely...

The essay goes on to describe additional research demonstrating not only that aggressive primates can behave well, but that under some conditions the new behaviors can become established and communicated across generations.

Sapolsky seems to be in part responding to those who think humans are irredeemably prone to aggressive xenophobia. I don't think that belief is very credible, however -- and I'm no fan of humans! To that end then the essay is overkill.

On the other hand, for us to survive the next fifty years we will have to do far more than be civil. We will need "enlightenment 2.0", an unprecedented ability to get outside of our our personal world. Sapolsky is providing support for the desperate belief that humans can rise to the challenge.


Brent said...

Spot on, Mr. Gordon.
This is the big question of our times.
This essay furthers the dialogue and includes a global model-in-progress:


The author seeks peer review. What do you and your readers make of it?

Anonymous said...

Great post that gives plenty of food for thought Gordon, the emphasis must be on “can” rise. I don’t think that humans are at all different than primates in so far as their ability to make quick social adjustments when presented with constraints or the opposite.
The ability to transforms ones temperament demands a higher level of consciousness and years of work but we can, with some ongoing reflection, work back upon our biological, organic nature, and make subtle changes in our character. Primates, I believe, cannot.
Does our ability to think about thinking make our cognition processes unique in relationship to the primates?