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Robert Sapolsky is a highly celebrated neuroendocrinologist, who has also spent years in the wild observing baboon troops, putting him in a unique position to try to understand the feed-back chain of causation between observed behavior in primates (including us) and cellular-synaptic activity.  Recently he has been making the rounds with his latest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

As baboons, especially males, are on the violent end of primate behavior, contrasted to their much more pacific bonobo cousins [same order, not same genus,] a question naturally rises: is the violence built in, or does it grow and become habituated in individuals and societies due to environment?

The same question we want to know about Homo Sapiens: You and Me.

As it turns out, Sapolsky wrote an interesting short essay for “Foreign Affairs” magazine in January/February 2006, titled “A Natural History of Peace.”

It’s only seven pages long, so I can recommend a complete reading,  especially to those interested in primate studies and what might be learned from them about human behavior.  The short take away is this.

Although baboons have long been observed to be highly aggressive and male-dominant, Sapolsky himself observed a sea-change in the behavior of one troop.  The most highly aggressive males were killed off by tuberculosis while foraging away from the others.  Those remaining, now living without the stress of top-male violence, began to change.

“There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before: compared with other, more typical savanna baboon groups, high-ranking males rarely harassed subordinates and occasionally even relinquished contested resources to them. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other — a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

That is,”members of the species demonstrated enough behavioral plasticity to transform a society of theirs into a baboon utopia.”


Then what about us, you and me?

As he summarizes in the article

“The first half of the twentieth century was drenched in the blood spilled by German and Japanese aggression, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility.

… Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, “No, it is beyond our nature,” knows too little about primates, including ourselves …

He doesn’t enter into the probabilities of such going “beyond our nature,” which seem diminishingly small today as I write this, the President of the United States having just been quoted as threatening the use of nuclear missiles.  Nevertheless, let’s speculate, shall we?


Sapolsky’s own 16 minute TED Talk on The Biology of our Best and Worst.

Stanford, where Sapolsky teaches, has put his Human Behavioral Biology course on-line.,  Search You Tube for his name and you’ll find many.

If you are only interested in human sexual behavior try 15 and 16.

Or aggression, linked to sex in 17, then there’s a lot of aggression in 18 and 19 and 20. 

Many short talks are on YouTube and elsewhere if you do a few searches, as well as a few movies/TV outtakes at IMDB.

“The Teaching Company” offers his Stress and Your Body.

At “The Edge”, are discussions with him of various scientific ideas.

Have fun!