<--previous next-->
The interview: part 2

Thom: From your book it seemed like you tried the least invasive method possible to study your baboon troop. You didn't bring them in the lab and slice them up or anything?

Robert: Never. I've known these guys for 20 years. It was like a clinical study.

Thom: How much do you think you anthropromophized the baboons as a way of dealing with your research as a stressful situation?

Robert: I do think that much. I certainly did for the book but hopefully it is sort of obvious at what point I am being tongue-in-cheek. Antropromorphism has this sort of funny history in animal behavior studies. the older generation of animal behaviorists, people who are in their 60s now are so totally hate. They started their science in reaction to the Disney- Marlon Perkin's world of anthropromphism so they invented quantitative mathematically based field techniques, not proscribing, not projecting, using human terms. Nonetheless, some of the best work in this area is built around this work. Franz deVal is one of the best primatologists in the world who writes books entitled Chimpanzee Politics and that is not anthropomorphism; it is a term appropriate to primates as a whole. They have personalities; they have temperaments; they have vendettas; they have cliques; they have political behavior.

Thom: So, how much a stressor do you think you were for the baboons? I mean, do you think they ever thought: hmm, that funny guy without a lot of hair is around and there is a good chance I'm going to get stuck in the butt and lose an hour or so?

Robert: They definitely know I am there. They know I am related to them. I am some sort of primate. When I used to spend 4 months a year there, the darting would have no impact on them because I would spend 12 hours a day following them, pure behavioral and once every 5th day I would wait for the perfect moment when no one was looking and the guys back was turned and I'd dart him. No lose of habituation. Now because I am there such a short amount of time I don't do any behavioral work; my Kenyan guys do. I just do 3 dartings a day for 3 weeks. It has changed. They know when I am there. I can no longer get basal hormone levels because they know that it is darting season. The experiments now are disruptive so I have to take this into account.

Thom: Do you think there is anything we can learn from baboons today to deal with situations such as September 11th? I mean, how does a baboon deal with a traumatic situation in the troop?

Robert: Hmm, if they are lucky enough to have an individual they are closely affiliated with they go and sit and groom. It is a very concrete response. If they are female it is likely to be someone who is a relative, a mother, a sister, a child. If it is a male and they are not in the 25% who actually have a close relationship with a female they do not have that option. that makes a huge difference. I haven't done the research but others have used telemetry devices to measure blood pressure, heart rate and EKG even in fully ambulatory primates. It is exactly as you would expect. Some one loses a social interaction, a dominance interaction, up goes blood pressure and he walks over to the other side of the enclosure, these are all animals in capture, and he sits and starts to grooming someone and blood pressure comes back down. Same way in humans.

Thom: If baboons had weapons of mass destruction, do you think they would use them on outside groups?

Robert: In a second. It would not be organized in a territorial troop way because they are not organized an organized troop. They are all males who showed up and are not related. They would be more likely to try to use it on somebody in their troop as on somebody in another troop because of grudges.

Chimps have the reverse system where it is females who change troops at puberty so males spend all their lives with other males whom they are related to. So you suddenly have this very potent, dangerous situation of adult males who are related to each other and have been cooperating their entire lives. there you would get chimps happily using weapons of mass destruction to eradicate the neighbors. You get something resembling warfare in chimps. You get groups of related controlling their territory, killing males from other groups that they encounter. It is not for anything that all the warrior societies on earth, all the pastoralist-warrior societies were all patralocal; males stay where they grew up. So, men as adults are surrounded by their brothers and other relatives, so that is the backbone of us-them warfare.

Thom: so then as a primatologist would you say that warfare is part of an adaptive protective technique or technology?

Robert: Eh no, it is not necessarily adaptive. If you look at mountain gorillas who do something fairly awful and unpleasant which is called competitive infanticide; males will kill each otherÕs infants. there is this wonderful, clear vicious Darwinian logic to this where you wipe out the reproductive success of your competitor and that is good for your genes because relatively you are doing better. This makes sense strategically. This is one variant of war violence, which has a pay off, but there are now 500 mountain gorillas left on the earth. Amid many of the reasons why they are on the edge of extinction this is one of the reasons that infants get killed. In a case like the mountain gorilla it is definitely not adaptive.

it is also the case that there are plenty of primates where there is no violence at all. Baboons happen to be extremely violent. There is not pattern that the more violent primates are more closely related to humans. There is no universal of organized warfare in humans even though most human societies do have organized warfare but there are exceptions. There is nothing to say that warfare is a universal primate or mammalian behavior.

Thom: As a scientist can you look at human and see us ever getting past organized warfare?

Robert: It certainly is possible to the extent that if one had a different disciplinary bent you could construct just as much of a story built around the number of species out there who do slavery. They tend not to be mammals or primates. It is very wide spread in social insects. It has also been wide spread through out human history. Now at least some pockets of westernized human life what was once viewed as absolutely logical and natural and all sorts of cultural conventions such as religion were built around rationalizing slavery, it doesn't exist any more. It certainly exists in the Sudan but at least in parts of the earth what was once viewed as natural, inevitable and universal no longer is.

Thom: so there might be hope?

Robert: There might be hope but it sure does not look to be on the horizon at the moment.

Thom: are there any lessons on aggression we can take from your studies or baboons and violence in children? If look at events such as Columbine, are there any lessons which can be learned from baboons?

Robert: It will not work to teach kids to be unaggressive because we do not have a society dominated by Quakers and pacifists. We have a society, which loves aggression and rewards it enormously. The key thing is reward in context. I am certainly grateful for the enormous amount of aggression generated by America during World War 2. So much of what socialization is about is not about learning how much of a behavior to perform but in stead learning the appropriate social context for it. When you look at the classic studies of Harry Harlowe sat Wisconsin in the 50s of raising primates in social isolation and then seeing the ways in which they were screwed up as adults, they were not more or less violent than average, they were not more or less sexually active, they were inappropriate in all cases. they aggressed animals they had no business going near. They were terrified of tiny infants. they were attempting to mate with the wrong kind of animals or inanimate objects. they did not have inappropriate levels of anything; they had inappropriate contexts.

Thom: how can teachers create the right context for kids? In Columbine supposedly the kids couldn't deal with the hazing of high school.

Robert; I don't see any easy primate lessons with Columbine. I certainly identified with Kleblold; the hazing was my experience growing up. It is an appalling world where high school jock-dom and cliques not only ignored but also officially condoned because it is much the same people who have wound up running the school systems. No primate lessons at Columbine. It was an abusing situation.

We teach kids it is ok to lie, sometimes. You lie to Grandma when you don't like the present. You see your parentsÕ lie when saying the meal is wonderful. Most of what we teach is not the moral absolute. It is ok to lie. it is ok to be violent; it is ok to kill in some cases. It would be nonsense for me to be a pacifist in World War 2. It is all about context. That is what primates get socialized to do. Somewhere in the book I describe this event when an infant who has been born to one of the lowest ranking females and when she is about a week old this infant was about to interact with the daughter of the highest ranking female. Just as she was about to interact with the high ranking child the low ranking mother reaches over and drags her back. She had just gotten a lesson at a week of age that that is not someone you walk up to and interact with. If you are going to interact with her you sit still and you don't make eye contact and you hope that the interaction consist of her walking past and ignoring you. In her first week of life she was learning context dependency of having a low rank. If I come back a quarter of a century later and these old ladies are still behaving in the same way.

Thom: But in this situation it was the mother teaching the lesson. In the Columbine situation do you think it was the parent or a teachers responsibility to teach the lesson to Klebold?

Robert: No, because human society has more layers more complex peer groups, more routes of socialization than in a non-human primate society. they don't have the equivalent of police, teachers, social workers, of differing peer groups with differing social values, they don't have the media. Much more complicated with humans.

Thom: You said you identified with Klebold. How did you cope with the situation back then?

Robert: I ulcerated internally. I did not have good coping mechanisms. I decided that someday I would go live with baboons or some sort of primate. In Huxley, Brave New World, a very stratified caste system allowed the caste system to work. Each caste was propagandized to think of themselves as the lucky ones, rationalization works well in humans. I know someone at Harvard who studies the health consequences of being in a low caste in India. he studies how much the Huxley model protects someone in a low caste from health consequences and it works. Working with that model also makes you less likely to be revolutionary. Working with that model makes you less likely to be a random Klebold. It is not for nothing that American Southern slave owners taught the slaves turn-the-other-cheek Christianity. It is not for anything that Islam in the Middle east has the attribution system pointed outward rather than inward.

Thom: is there anything a teacher can do to work with kids dealing with childhood aggression?

Robert: Channel it into an appropriate setting. Channel it into an appropriate setting.

Thom: Some people often say that when two kids want to fight you have to let them flight. Do think that is true?

Robert: We are actually dealing with this issue with our son in his preschool. They are saying ' this is inevitable' and what we do is set it up in a safe constrained rules for how it stop for wrestling. I actually hate it. I don't know if we are right. we are horrified seeing our angelic child become this 'male.' But, who is in charge? What is this bullshit that this is inevitable male behavior? But, if it is happening you sort of have to constrain it, channel it. One of the place in the book I talk about the New Guinea (sp?) highlanders were forcible westernized into Christianity one of the things they had to stamp out was the tribal raiding between villages which accounted for a huge percent of the mortality. what they did was organize these very successful New guinea highland Olympics where they do some of the old stuff like spear throwing where they do it under controlled circumstances where people do occasionally get injured and even killed because otherwise it would not have the right saliency to it and it has been very successful. Villages get bragging right just like they used to when they burned and plundered the neighbors.

Thom: After 20 years in the field, are you ever talking to another person and you realize that that person is behaving like a baboon or another primate?

Robert: All the time. When I first became a faculty member at Stanford and I was a totally subordinate faculty member, faculty meetings were amazing to watch in terms of the utter power dominance displayed. Hierarchies, totally primate behavior.

Thom: What about with your kids? Do you look at them as little baboon types?

Robert: They are two and four. What has surprised me is how little my primatology credentials have prepared me in the slightest for fatherhood. Some where around 6-8 months of age when they started picking of pieces of things the differences between them and other non-human primates flooded far more than the similarities. I thought parenting was going to be one big primatology blowout but mostly I have been stunned by how little the language and symbolic manipulation is on such a different league. Very little is carried over from non-human primates to human primates.

Robert: No, that is just one of my pet hobbies. In my lab my research is oriented toward gene therapy and the nervous system which in 5-10 years will either have worked and turned into clinical trials which will be out of my hands or won't have worked and we'll sorta shut down as a field. My guess is that 10 years from now I am going to be working on the neurobiology of those issues, brain imaging, issues of religious belief, impulsivity, faith, stuff like that which is not terrible accessible at this point but will be fairly soon. ... more ...

<--previous next-->

©2002 AIT Press & Thom Gillespie. Pictures by Eriberto Lozada from the Butler University J. James Wood Science Writer Lecture Series