Peaceful primates

03/10/2016

In 2004, primatologist Robert Sapolsky published a paper about a remarkable troop of savanna baboons. In the early 1980s, the troop’s most aggressive alpha males invaded another troop’s territory every morning for access to a hotel’s garbage dump and fought for first pickings. Mornings are normally committed to socialization, but these alphas would forgo natural bonding behaviors, fighting off even their own troop members to ensure that they got the best food.

Their troop was terrorized by the violent alphas, who attacked females, the young and the beta males. But everything changed when the alphas bullied their way to the dump one day and ate tainted beef. They all died of tuberculosis, leaving their troop with a higher proportion of females and beta males.

The troop became more peaceful, males cared for their young, females took a greater leadership role and young males trying to join the troop were rejected if they were too aggressive. Rather than using violence and bullying to keep order, the troop to this day succeeds at using affection and mutual grooming, and its members are less stressed.

Until this study, the belief was that primates, including baboons and humans, were irrevocably warlike and aggression was the key to success. As we watch our politicians sparring and see the effects of war around the world, we can take heart that it is not impossible to change our behavior and our cultures.