Baboons are a fascinating branch of the family tree. We humans have big brains, complex language, and a staggering collection of tools. Yet, with smaller brains, grunt communication, and no tools, baboons have brilliantly lived sustainably for millions of years — like every other species of animals, except you-know-who.
Long ago, primates began as cute insect eating tree critters. Climate change has always been a mischievous rascal, periodically redefining the rules of survival. Two to four million years ago, east Africa, the “cradle of humankind,” became cooler and dryer. Rainforests shrank, and grasslands expanded. Many forest species went extinct. Chimps and bonobos were lucky. They remained in the forest and managed to adapt to changing conditions.
Baboons are interesting because, like humans, their ancestors moved out of the forest and adapted to savannah-woodland ecosystems. They have managed to survive in a rough neighborhood that includes lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, crocodiles, and trigger happy farmers. Baboons demonstrate that primates can survive in a dangerous habitat without spears, fire, complex language, or throbbing big brains — and they can do this without causing irreversible degradation.
Baboons evolved in a tropical ecosystem. They don’t need protective clothing or shelters. They have a year-round supply of food, so they don’t need to hibernate, or stash nutrients for lean seasons. Their diet majors in plant foods, including palm nuts, jackal berries, figs, and sausage fruit. They also consume animal foods like insects, rodents, fish, shellfish, hares, birds, vervet monkeys, antelopes, and human infants.
Anyway, my muse gave me a dope slap and told me to pay more attention to baboons, so I read Baboon Metaphysics, by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth. The authors have joined the animal intelligence crusade, and are working to discredit the common misconception that nonhuman animals are little more than mindless stimulus-response automatons. Their research was performed by intruding into wild baboon communities and performing annoying experiments on them.
Modern humans have been lobotomized by their extreme disconnection from the living world. If folks spent their days in continuous contact with wild animals, no research would be needed to certify their obvious intelligence.
Metaphysics is defined as “the part of philosophy that is about understanding existence and knowledge.” This is much like intelligence, which is intellect, the faculty of understanding. Cheney is a biologist, and Seyfarth is a psychologist. Their objective is to persuade readers that nonhuman animals, like baboons, supplement their instincts with aspects of genuine intelligence.
My focus is ecological sustainability, and I see “animal intelligence” from a different perspective. All wild nonhuman animals adapt to their ecosystem and go with the flow. They have lived sustainably for millions of years. What could possibly be more intelligent? It doesn’t seem intelligent to knowingly destroy the ecosystem, and radically destabilize the climate, whilst stumbling around staring at glowing screen thingies.
Here are three reasons why there aren’t seven-point-something billion baboons in the world. (1) They didn’t exterminate most of their predators. (2) They made no effort to increase the volume of food produced in their habitat via soil mining; they adapted to the wild food supply provided by nature. (3) They lived as evolution had prepared them to live, wisely avoiding the toxic tar baby of innovation and technology — the express lane to extinction. Birds evolved to fly; baboons did not.
All nonhuman species live in accordance with these three principles, whilst the human population continues to grow explosively. It is out of control because modern folks generally lack foresight, and the wisdom to practice mindful self-restraint. They lack the intelligence to comprehend the ecological foolishness of relentless campaigns of predator extermination. Naturally, living in vast crowds conjures a new class of predators — infectious diseases and degenerative diseases.
Meanwhile, baboons have no need for wisdom. They enjoy the management services provided by Big Mama Nature. Predators happily keep their groups stable. In the great dance of life, we all feed one another. The authors note, “Predation accounts for the vast majority of deaths among male, female, and juvenile baboons.” Baboons do not spend the last years of their lives decaying; they feed the lions.
Baboons intelligently avoid predators by sleeping in trees, or at the top of steep cliffs. In daylight hours, they return to the savannah to forage. (YouTube has many fascinating baboon documentaries.) Males are much larger than females, and when predators visit, it is their responsibility to rush in and be as loud and belligerent as possible. Males have large canine teeth, and predators are careful to avoid being wounded; they prefer sneaky low-risk surprise attacks. Males hold off predators whilst the females and young try to escape. The lives of males are nasty, brutish, and short. Females can live 20 years.
Powerful aggressive males encourage group survival. The alpha male baboon is the primary sperm donor in each group. His evolutionary mission is to father as many offspring as possible, but his time in office is usually brief. A new alpha, on average, is master of the harem for just seven to eight months. Consequently, he promptly tries to kill the offspring of all lactating females, so these mothers will be freed to produce offspring with his genes. This infanticide custom provides a secondary control on population growth, and encourages the production of badass defender daddies.
Like many other species, baboon society is hierarchical. There are many levels of rank in the group, and every individual knows his or her current position. Among female baboons, ranking is fairly stable. They spend their entire lives in the group of their birth. Males, on the other hand, migrate to other groups as young adults. The arriving young lads are a threat to the status of the current alpha. Challenges usually involve macho posturing, loud shrieks, and high-speed chases — not injurious beatings. An individual male’s rank can change frequently.
Paul Shepard once asserted that ground monkeys (like baboons) are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.” I wonder if humans are even more so. Baboons play the status game without rubbishing their ecosystem. Modern humans devote their entire lives to hoarding manufactured status trinkets. Countless landfills are piled deep with discarded trinkets, thrown out to make space for our newer, bigger, flashier, trendier foolishness. We cannot wean ourselves from habitual car driving, because travelling intelligently would take a huge toll on our social status (sorry kids!).
We are not doomed by faulty genes. We’re doomed by mindlessly marching to the beat of screwy beliefs, but belief is voluntary. We do not have to shop till we drop. Thinking outside the box is a sign of intelligence. It’s OK to question consensus reality. It’s OK to stand strong against the powerful currents of our insane culture. It’s OK to leap over the fence and pursue a meaningful and rewarding life. This may be the only life you ever live. Live well!
Cheney, Dorothy L., and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics — The Evolution of the Social Mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.