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January 04, 2006
Monkeys and marmosets and baboons, oh my.

It's about people. It's about people and monkeys and orangutan and baboons and marmosets and chimps and war and peace and civilization.

About A Natural History of Peace.

The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, "All species are unique, but humans are uniquest."

Turns out that's not really all that true. We've been preening ourselves and being all smug about something that...well, that just isn't so. Other animals argue, cooperate, make and use tools, wage war, and choose monogamy, to mention just a few characteristics.

Our purported uniqueness has been challenged most, however, with regard to our social life. Like the occasional human hermit, there are a few primates that are typically asocial (such as the orangutan). Apart from those, however, it turns out that one cannot understand a primate in isolation from its social group. Across the 150 or so species of primates, the larger the average social group, the larger the cortex relative to the rest of the brain. The fanciest part of the primate brain, in other words, seems to have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to gossip and groom, cooperate and cheat, and obsess about who is mating with whom. Humans, in short, are yet another primate with an intense and rich social life -- a fact that raises the question of whether primatology can teach us something about a rather important part of human sociality, war and peace.
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, on the other hand, such as baboons and rhesus monkeys, the opposite conditions prevail.

Makes sense. Violence, territoriality, and conflict are aspects of species that live in resource-scarce environments. In resource-generous environments, these things aren't really needed.

Interestingly, it seems to be the males who change the most as a result of the different environments. (Or who developed differently, as the case may be. Aggressive behavior and a tendency toward violence aren't inherently "male" characteristics in environments that don't require those traits.)

That view always had little more scientific rigor than a Planet of the Apes movie, but it took a great deal of field research to figure out just what should supplant it. 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 important, 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 themselves.

It's a long article full of fascinating information and speculation, well worth reading by anyone interested in the human psyche.

In recent years, for example, it has been recognized that a certain traditional style of chest-thumping evolutionary thinking is wrong. According to the standard logic, males compete with one another aggressively in order to achieve and maintain a high rank, which will in turn enable them to dominate reproduction and thus maximize the number of copies of their genes that are passed on to the next generation. But although aggression among baboons does indeed have something to do with attaining a high rank, it turns out to have virtually nothing to do with maintaining it. Dominant males rarely are particularly aggressive, and those that are typically are on their way out: the ones that need to use it are often about to lose it.

There's a certain amount of chest-thumping going on in our society today, making that last sentence of (purely scientific) interest to some of us. Especially considering the next sentence.

Instead, maintaining dominance requires social intelligence and impulse control -- the ability to form prudent coalitions, show some tolerance of subordinates, and ignore most provocations.

Good baboons learn to cooperate and play nicely with others.

The article has everything...innate peacefulness, threatened extinction of a rare species, female choice, even group sex! The rightwingnuts are going to hate it.

More seriously, it brings up some very interesting thoughts about genetics and human nature.

To some extent, the age-old "nature versus nurture" debate is silly. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function; in a sense, it is pointless to even discuss what gene X does, and we should consider instead only what gene X does in environment Y. Nonetheless, if one had to predict the behavior of some organism on the basis of only one fact, one might still want to know whether the most useful fact would be about genetics or about the environment.

Highly recommended.

Posted by AnneZook at 12:40 PM