Friday, January 1, 2010

Baboons, foxes, and domesticating humans away from war

I just heard the coolest radio show I've ever heard on NPR, cooler than the giant pool of money. It's from Radiolab and discusses how to tell if a change is transient or permanent, with a central question of whether it is possible ever to eliminate war among humans. Radiolab tells several stories.

The first is about baboons. The way baboon troops operate is that around puberty, males get antsy and leave the troop for another one. There they are shown a mix of hazing and ignoring. In general, females cooperate with each other, and males fight each other. It's the way baboons are. Except in one place.

A tourist lodge was built and then expanded near one baboon troop's range. They dug a big hole on the periphery, and every morning at 9 a.m., a tractor dumped a load of garbage, leftover food from the dining room and kitchen. Free baboon food. The nearest baboons moved in, and instead of getting up at daybreak to forage, they began sleeping in the trees around the dump and rolling out about 2 minutes to 9.

A troop next door found out, and the biggest males would go over and grab food. They got beat up by the resident baboons, of course, but they did get some food for themselves, which they did not share with the lower ranking baboons of their own tribe.

Then one day the meat was contaminated with tuberculosis, and in weeks, the big, aggressive males all died. The remaining males were less aggressive and groomed each other, unheard of in baboonology. What's more, as their young males left the tribe and other males arrived, the newly arrived males were treated better than they usually are, and the non-aggressive social structure has continued 20 years and counting.

The second was about a transgendered woman who is mayor in a tiny town in Oregon.

Later they talked about the fox breeding experiment in Russia, that I've talked about before, where selecting for tame foxes meant selecting for low adrenaline, and other things like thin bones, smaller teeth, variegated coat, and floppy ears followed, because they are all mediated by adrenaline, so cutting adrenaline changed all those things. But then they applied the lessons to humans.

This is conjecture, but let's suppose that when people became able to hunt and gather in cooperation, this meant that they were able to cooperate to kill an alpha male if he was too much of a bully. Baboons have to let the big guy rule, because they don't know how to fight together. But humans do and can kill one big guy. The question is whether this selection for less aggression by killing the aggressor has other adrenaline-mediated effects. Compared with our ancestors, modern humans have thinner bones, less hair, and smaller teeth, so it's plausible that the same selective pressure is occurring when we either kill crooks and murderers or put them in jail, where they breed less than free-range low-lifes do.

If this is true, then we are domesticating ourselves by our power of cooperation, and there is no particular reason it can't continue. We might, one day, end war. How about that. Something hopeful on New Year's. Happy new year.

For your new year's present to yourself, sit and listen to it.

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