Chad Weber did such an excellent job in his last post on Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, that we asked him back to talk Sapolsky’s work with baboons.
Robert Sapolsky goes to the African plains ever summer to study baboons. Sapolsky paid most attention to a particular forest “troop” (or baboon group). One year, the aggressive young males of the forest troop began raiding a neighboring troop’s territory — more specifically, a pit in their territory used by nearby safari lodges as a trash dump.
One day, these aggressive young hoodlums raided the dump and feasted on a large amount of raw beef. Unfortunately, it was infected with bovine tuberculosis; for baboons, unlike humans, getting tuberculosis means an inevitable, quick death. All the baboons in the pit troop died, as did all the aggressive young raiders from the forest troop.
Sapolsky was devastated — data on a population that just went through a catastrophic demographic shift would be useless. He wanted to see baboons behaving normally, not a group that had just lost all its tougher males and had its gender ratio turned upside down.
The forest troop was markedly different after the deaths — calmer, less violent, with more grooming and much more positive interactions than before. He decided not to study them, as they were clearly waiting for other aggressive, dominant males to show up and return the troop to its old, violent ways.
An assistant was sent to do a census on the forest troop years later, and returned to Sapolsky very excited. Sapolsky reluctantly agreed to see what was so shocking. He was stunned to find that the members of the forest troop were still acting “friendly,” and doing things no baboons had ever been observed doing before. Male baboons never groom each other — except in the forest troop. Males have no role in raising their kids, and never hold/carry their kids — except in the forest troop. The average distance between troop members was reduced by more that 50 percent.
Sapolsky was eager to learn how the troop, which now seemed far too peace-and-love oriented to defend itself, had managed to avoid being taken over. Then, one day, a violent, dominant male fell upon them and attempted to subjugate the troop to his rule. The troop instantly turned on him and literally tore him limb from limb. When Sapolsky went out to study the troop the next day, the baboons were quietly grooming each other as usual, and on the ground beside them was the severed face of the would-be usurper. The group managed to avoid a return to violence by reserving all their aggression for the males who occasionally tried to fill the power vacuum.
At a dinner and lecture for a fundraiser, Sapolsky did a Q&A after finishing his lecture. Someone asked him, based on his experience and his research, how can we reduce or eliminate violence in our society. His answer: “Kill all the aggressive young males.”