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Friday, March 23, 2007

A troop of baboons in hummers

John Dupre, in an nifty little takedown of the use of rational expectations theory as the master key to all the social sciences in Human Nature and the Limits of Science, noted the convergence of the ideology of the theory with the ideology of evolutionary psychology – both emanating from a conservative view of human nature, the one derived from Adam Smith’s notion that we are designed to truck and barter, the other finding justificatory fables in nature for social hierarchies which, in reality, we see dissolve all of the time.

There’s a nice article by Amanda Rees that explores the primatology behind evolutionary psychology in the Fall issue of the History of Science. As anybody knows who has read comments threads on feminist sites, or any site that ventures into that classic boobish trope, men vs. women (why do women do this? why do men do that?), sooner or later the male as hunter and sperm sprinkler will emerge – extra points for the comedic effect of those whose only experience of being a hunter is buying hamburger in a grocery store trying to analogize working in an office with spearchucking on the savannah.

So where did the images come from? Rees points to the influential work of Sherwood Washburn and Irven Devore, who, in the fifties, studied and filmed baboons. Why baboons? Not because human beings have a close dna kinship. Such taxonomies were undreamt of in the fifties, anyway.

“Baboon social structure and ecology resembled the conditions thought to be characteristic of early man: both species lived in relatively large social groups, including related and unrelated animals of both sexes and all ages; both species had come down from the trees, abandoning the forest for the open savannah. Baboon life, it was thought, was likely therefore to mirror the experiences of early humans. Baboons too would have to learn to manage the tensions inherent in group life when that group includes individuals of different status and conflicting needs, and they would have to face the challenges of life on the plains. Forest primates had the option of disappearing into the trees to escape predators: animals in the open, like early humans, must have developed different defence mechanisms.”

Rees notes the presuppositions in Washburn and Devore’s work:

“When the baboon group moves from one place to another, they suggested, troop members were distributed in such a way as to give the greatest protection to the most vulnerable members. In their own words,
As the troop moves, the less dominant adult males, and perhaps a large juvenile or two occupy the van. Females and more of the older juveniles follow, and in the centre of the troop are the females with infants, the young juveniles, and the most dominant males. The back of the troop is a mirror image of its front, with
the less dominant males at the rear. Thus, without any fixed or formal order, the arrangement of the troop is such that the females and young are protected at the center.”

As they also stressed in a later publication, this arrangement provides maximum protection for the weaker members — approaching predators would be met by large, aggressive adult males on both the troop’s periphery and in the centre, before they could reach the vulnerable animals at the troop’s heart. This model not only reflected the ‘man-the-hunter’ model that dominated anthropology at that time — casting, as
it did, the males as the primary sources through which group integrity was derived and maintained — but it was also based on the assumption that it was possible to identify a single primate pattern (essential if one was to be able to generalize from primate to human behaviour), an assumption that derived from the search for species typical behaviour that was central to classical ethology, one of primatology’s
parental disciplines.”

One has to remember that Washburn and Devore are working at the height of the Cold war, when troops of the analogues to baboons – humans – were being planified into cars that drove on highways (in which the weak were crushed) that made possible suburbs that possibly dispersed the urban target from the potential missile hit. It was a man’s man’s man’s baboon world, and those who could not be attracted to buttocks that were inflamed with the right red white and blue as they worked at SAC – or the Soviet colors, as they worked at the Semipalatinsk Test Site – were not members of the order. Oddly enough, female primatologists found a different order indeed. Washburn and Devore’s student, Rowell, found something different: “Rowell’s work on forest baboons in Uganda found no sign of the typical pattern of troop movement: instead, she noted that when danger threatened, the troop’s response was “precipitate flight, with the big males well to the front and the last animals usually the females carrying the heavy babies”. Well, we can’t have deadbeat and cowardly Dad’s in the geneology, can we?

Rees’ account ends without primatology crystallizing around one paradigm. It includes the saga of Sarah Hrdy’s observations of infanticide, and how these were denied – which has become a little parable in primatology, much like Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition projected an aura of heroism on physics – but it turns out that infanticide is still a much more disputed event, in its meaning and evolutionary function, than the heroic story would make out.

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