Baboon studies: understanding baboons on their own terms? Part I

In a previous post, I introduced (historical) gender bias in primate studies, as identified by Donna Haraway (etc).  And in my latest post about the book Animal Wise, I mentioned Jane Goodall’s reluctance to include “anthropomorphic” descriptions of primates in her research.   Here I would like to begin to explore the first subject in the context of baboon studies.   Part II follows with a focus on baboons and “anthropomorphic” descriptions.

Changing “understandings” of baboon behaviour

In Primate Visions (1989), Donna Haraway provided a comprehensive argument against Washburn’s depiction of baboons and the subsequent appropriation of such conceptions in scientific fields as a model for the evolution of human behaviour and social organisation.  She could refer to studies conducted by women in the field, such as Thelma Rowell and Shirley Strum; these studies challenged Washburn’s (and DeVore’s) accounts which described baboon societies as based on “male aggression and dominance, and a predictable structuring of society which seemed inevitably centered on the males of the group.”  (see Strum, 1998, Baboon Tales Study Guide)  Even before Strum and Rowell, Eugene Marais had also observed baboons and had seen them differently (1922, 1939), so it was not only women primatologists who were able to come to more nuanced, and one could say, more accurate conclusions about baboon behaviour and social interactions.

Strum has studied olive baboons in Kenya since 1972, but she points to differences evident amongst baboon troops studied in other areas of Africa (so intra-species differences when it comes to social arrangements and the exhibiting of “culture”, for instance).  This is apparent in a study by Robert Sapolsky and Lisa Share, written up as a journal article entitled “A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons:  its emergence and transmission” (2004, PLoS Biol 2 (4): e106); the article details a case of a baboon troop where the more aggressive males died due to a tuberculosis outbreak, and only non-aggressive males remained.  A more pacifist culture resulted within the troop and was accepted by incoming males, leading to increased grooming and bonds with females and a loose dominance hierarchy (the stress levels were lower in the least dominant males).  All baboons, then, cannot be characterised in the same manner, as aggressive and forming social groups based on male dominance hierarchies (because different environmental circumstances matter, as do the perspectives of the researchers studying the baboons).

Strum explains from her experience that “it is the females and their families that form the stable core of the group”, and the social structure is “matrilineal”. (Strum, Baboon Tales, 1998, p. 9)  In terms of male behaviour, she says the following:

“Males do have the anatomy of aggression which they use occasionally against other males and in rare moments against predators. But life is infinitely more complex. How big and strong you are as a male does count but so does how smart you are, how much you know and how skillful you are at forming relationships (friendships with females and youngsters, alliances with other males).” (Ibid, p.10)

And finally, Strum concludes:

“The baboons that I have studied for 26 years have politics, friendships, family networks and the “golden rule”: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you want help, you have to be willing to help. This is very different from the original baboon model where male aggression and dominance were central and all the rest of the group organized themselves around the males and through the males.  In fact, males and females have need of each other; they have complementary relationships and roles. While aggression and dominance are sometimes important, baboons have many other options.” (Ibid, p. 11)

A more recent study, presented in the book Baboon Metaphysics (2008), by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, reiterates Strum’s conclusions, particularly describing in detail male-male competitive behaviour in relation to mating.  Cheney and Seyfarth have spent decades studying baboons in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana.  They explain the behaviour of males in competition to mate with females:

“Male chases and displays are a daily occurrence; physical fights, by contrast, are relatively rare.  This is not unusual.  In most animal species, competitive interactions typically take the form of vocal and visual, or gesture displays – loud calls, threatening postures, and other behaviours… male baboons’ competitive displays take the form of violent chases and loud ‘wahoo’ calls … males give [the calls] in long bouts, often as they race through the group or bounce through trees, leaping from branch to branch … wahoos really do seem to provide a reliable indicator of a male’s competitive ability.” (2008, pp. 51-52)

Cheney and Seyfarth did witness infanticide by immigrant males who entered the group and reached the status of alpha male, and they explain this in terms of mating – since males only remain in the alpha position for a short period, they could enter a group in which many females already have babies and will not be ready to mate for up to a year, until their offspring are weaned.  Killing the babies forces the females into becoming sexually available sooner so that the new immigrant alpha male can reproduce. (Ibid, p. 58)  But, of course, this is the observed outcome, not the individual’s motivation!  Cheney and Seyfarth do acknowledge this, by stating that “the proximate mechanisms that underlie a male’s decision to kill an infant remain elusive” (Ibid, p. 59) and they go on to state that “not all immigrant males who achieve alpha status commit infanticide… [its] occurrence depends both on the number and personalities of resident males and on the personality and aggressiveness of the immigrant.” (Ibid, p. 58-59)

After years of painstaking observations, Cheney and Seyfarth can conclude that “females form the core of baboon society” (Ibid, p. 50) and the hallmark of baboon metaphysics is sophisticated social knowledge.

Changing relationships

Strum rightly makes the following point: “how we see nature determines how we value it, and how we value it influences our actions” (1998, p. 3)  Cheney and Seyfarth mention the adversarial relationship that exists between African farmers and baboons (baboons have been known to raid crops and kill sheep and goats), even while the farmers might appreciate the intelligence and social nature of the primates.  (2008, see pp. 27-28)  The organisation, Imfene, devoted to baboon conservation and education,  hopes to dispel misconceptions about baboons and encourage positive relationships between humans and baboons in South Africa (Strum is actually a project consultant, along with other academics from South Africa, the UK and the US).  It seems fitting to conclude with a list of misconceptions about baboons provided on the Imfene website:

  • Baboons are not natural carnivores and they do not have adaptations for hunting and eating meat.
  • Baboons are not natural predators and thus would not normally attack a human unless threatened in some way.
  • The increased aggression and boldness of baboons that we perceive simply reflects a decreased fear of humans combined with an increased opportunity for free food.
  • Unlike many other primates, such as chimpanzees for example, baboons are NOT territorial.  Expanding human populations results in increased overlap between baboons and humans. This, combined with the natural flexibility of baboons, means that instead of ‘moving out’ of their original home range or simply dying off, a baboon troop may instead simply adapt its behaviour to this increased contact.
  • It is not the alpha male leading the troop, it is the females, especially the oldest females, that hold the troop together, that know the most about local resources, and that probably contribute the most to the troop’s movement patterns.


Jane Goodall and the Deceitful Chimp

Anthropomorphism or Good Observation?

I have just started a book by Virginia Morell called Animal Wise (2013).  Morell is a science writer who has written a biography of the Leakey family and co-authored the book Wildlife Wars with Richard Leakey.  Animal Wise is an exploration of animal thought and emotion.  What I’ve found most fascinating so far is Morell’s description of her meeting with Jane Goodall.  Morell visited Gombe, Tanzania to interview Goodall about her work with Louis Leakey, but she also spent time in the company of the chimps that Goodall was studying there.  Morell recalls one incident in particular, when Goodall introduced her to the chimps, Beethoven and Dilly:

“Beethoven [was] a big male with glossy black fur… With him was a young female chimpanzee, Dilly, whose mother had disappeared when Dilly was a toddler, leaving her an orphan.  As a rule, chimpanzees are raised by their mother, and any orphaned youngsters are cared for by their sisters or aunts.  But in this case it was the male, Beethoven, who’d adopted Dilly.” (p. 7)

This was unique in itself, but Morell’s point in recounting the relationship goes beyond the adoption of Dilly by Beethoven.  Morell witnesses a deceptive act by Dilly, and deception had always been ascribed to humans alone.  Beethoven would protect Dilly and would share food, but not when it came to bananas.  Goodall used bananas during sessions when she was trying to accustom chimps to the presence of humans.  When Beethoven and Dilly came over, Beethoven would take all of the bananas, not sharing a single one with Dilly.  Knowing this, Goodall saved one banana for Dilly:

Unbeknownst to Beethoven, [Goodall] had held back one banana.  When Dilly happened to glance at her, Goodall held up the prized fruit.  Normally, a hungry chimpanzee would make  a food cry after spotting such a delectable treat.  Dilly stifled any sound.  She watched as Goodall placed the banana outside of the feeding station, away from Beethoven’s line of sight.  It was as if she and Goodall had exchanged a secret, and like a coconspirator Dilly played her part.  She continued grooming the male, while making cooing, lullaby sounds of contentment.

At last Beethoven began to snore – and Dilly quickly and quietly made her way to the hidden banana.  She downed it in three bites.  Then she stealthily made her way back to Beethoven’s side and resumed her grooming and cooing.”  (p. 7)

When Morell discussed the behaviour later with Goodall and asked if she would be publishing an account of it, Goodall replied that she wouldn’t, as it was just anecdotal and fellow scientists would accuse her of anthropomorphism if she stated that Dilly had been deceitful:

“To say that Dilly – or any animal – had what we would call subjective or personal experiences would be considered unscientific.  Although some animals might have an inner mental life, we had no way of asking them about it and so could not study it.” (p. 8)

But, Goodall felt that the more scientists, ethologists in the field (and at research stations) observed these types of behaviours (behaviours that had been attributed only to humans), the more chance that the science of animal cognition would begin to allow such accounts to be presented, and this does now seem to be the case.  Morell’s book is devoted to delving into the issue.

This is a valuable exploration – fears of anthropomorphism could stop us from properly understanding the behaviour of other organisms and from relating to them in a deeper and more nuanced manner (a manner that is not based on human exceptionalism and arrogance).  As noted in the last post we must, of course, always be aware of the potential and real biases that can and do flavour research – biases inherent in different fields of study, and in the societies that surround them.   Certainly biases in the field of genetics (including sexism) blocked the acceptance of McClintock’s discovery of jumping genes until much later, and Darwin was constrained in part by the influence of work that had come before and the tenor of the time period within which he conducted his research.  Both still managed to come to radical conclusions based on intimate and painstaking observations of organisms over time.   Goodall and de Waal, among others, have done the same thing for the field of primatology.