Baboons Show Us How to be Peaceful Primates

July 5, 2014 Carol 2 comments


A troop of baboons chooses an enduring culture of peace!

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.
Arundhati Roy, War Talk

Cast of Characters

Dr Robert Sapolsky is a renowned American neuroendocrinologist. A New York Times article paints a wonderful portrait of this interesting man, whose cherished family photographs prominently feature baboons. 

The Forest Troop is a group of savanna baboons living in a national park in Kenya. In the early 1980’s, when this story took place, Sapolsky had been studying – virtually living with – them for years.

The Story

Each of these three presentations tell the same basic tale. Yet each has something special to offer.

Watch this remarkable video.

Here are my favorite bits …

“Males who were left … were good guys. They were not aggressive jerks.”

“Don’t bite somebody just because you’re having a bad day.”

“One of the greatest forms of sociality is giving rather than receiving.”

“What baboons teach us, is If they’re able to, within one generation, transform what are supposed to be textbook social systems sort of engraved in stone, we don’t have any excuse when we say there is a certain inevitability in human social systems.”

Listen to this Radiolab program.

If you have ever listened to any Radiolab shows, you know how engaging and entertaining they are; either way, you’re in for a treat.

New Baboon features Robert Sapolsky. It also includes two other segments. Here’s the structure:

  • A preliminary segment, in which 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?”  The typical answer is “No, because it’s too ingrained in our human nature.”
  • Robert Sapolsky tells the story of the Forest Troop. He describes the experience as being a major turning point in his life. My favorite bits …

“The new guys are learning, we don’t do stuff like that here.”

“If the females can get to the new guys early enough, everything’s different.”

“In a world in which, as an adolescent male, you’re treated better, something about the aggressiveness melts away.”

  • The final segment is an interview with primatologist Richard Wrangham. Wrangham asserts that the baboons’ aggressive nature is innate, unchanging, and hanging over them like a guillotine. In an effort to sway Wrangham’s opinion, someone tells him that it has been 20 years since the Forest Troop has been operating in this peaceful mode. Wrangham ultimately concedes that perhaps we do have reason to hope, and he decides to send this story to Foreign Affairs magazine.

Read A Natural History of Peace, written by Dr. Sapolsky.

This article includes several studies, including Sapolsky’s own “Forest Troop,” under the heading “Left Behind.” It features insights into how the troop’s culture is transmitted to newcomers:

At present, I think the most plausible explanation is that this troop’s special culture is not passed on actively but simply emerges, facilitated by the actions of the resident members. Living in a group with half the typical number of males, and with the males being nice guys to boot, Forest Troop’s females become more relaxed and less wary. As a result, they are more willing to take a chance and reach out socially to new arrivals, even if the new guys are typical jerky adolescents at first. The new males, in turn, finding themselves treated so well, eventually relax and adopt the behaviors of the troop’s distinctive social milieu.

Sapolsky concludes his article on a note of great hope:

Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, “No, it is beyond our nature,” knows too little about primates, including ourselves.

Will humans ever stop fighting wars?

Can humans learn to be peaceful primates?

What’s your answer? Why?

May this story of peaceful baboons give all of us more hope.

2 Comments on “Baboons Show Us How to be Peaceful Primates

  1. Carol, this is an interesting story. My son was stationed in several African nations during his tour of duty with the Army, the first call home he told me how dangerous the baboons were. People lived in huts without doors and to protect their families had to put all their food outside their homes at night for the baboons.

    To answer your question as to whether humans will ever be peaceful, I’d like yo answer yes, but I only see that happening in small numbers during my lifetime. Based only on my experiences in the US the expectations that we are owed, or deserve, to have what we want needs to change first.

  2. Hi Lois, Your son’s experience with baboons makes the Forest Troop story all the more amazing.

    I totally agree with your comment that, especially in the US, expectations need to change. I do think that we can make progress, and that someday there will be peace.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.


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