Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Book report: Baboon Metaphysics, by Cheney & Seyfarth

Book review at last! (or else InterLibrary Loan will come after me with *knives*):

Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, by Dorothy L. Cheney & Robert M. Seyfarth.

Cheney/Seyfarth and their colleagues have done exemplary work developing behavioral experiments in the field, the Okavango Delta. They have done beautiful work using recorded calls & playback experiments, and they've resisted all temptation to interfere with the baboons' lives, even during lion attacks.

The book comes with my highest recommendation -- the Amazon Reader Reviews give a very good flavor for what's in it, overall. This is a list of things *I* learned, even if there's a lot more in it that may be new to you.

1. Baboons recognize kinship. I don't mean they just recognize their own kin - that's not surprising, has been documented in all kinds of critters. I mean they recognize *other creatures' kin relationships*. Most vivid story is about Ahla, a baboon that was kept as a goat-herder by a farmer. She made great efforts to unite mother goats with their proper lambs, to the point where it caused problems when the farmer tried the standard method of fostering one of a pair of twin lambs with another mother. Ahla had none of this: she knew which lambs went with which mothers, and that's how she was going to make it be.

2. Baboon societies are made up of matrilines, groups of female blood relatives. The matrilines have a dominance hierarchy which overrides individual dominance -- the matriline rises or falls *together*. Such alterations are rare, the female hierarchy tends to be stable for years running.

3. It's not clear that baboons think of kin relationships in terms of "mother", "child", but they definitely think that certain individuals "go together", and the "going together" is a lot like property relationships.

4. When a female fights with a female from another matriline, they more often make up by proxy than directly. That is, a relative from the other matriline makes reconciling gestures (e.g. grooming), they calm down, and that acts to reconcile the fighters -- even if they haven't made reconciling gestures to each other.

5. The male hierarchy is simple and volatile. Males have few long-term relationships, and C/S think this is one reason males have much shorter lifespans than females: strong social relationships are buffers against emotional stress, especially fear and grief.

6. In their study population, the leading cause of death for infants is infanticide by males. Adults mostly die from predation. The habitat is extremely rich and the population density high -- other baboon populations have much lower infanticide levels.

7. Apes all use tools, from time to time. Baboons never do. Apes do not live in complex groups, yet they are clearly more intelligent than baboons (although baboons are pretty durn smart). Tool intelligence and social intelligence overlap, they have something in common -- even though tools have no minds, and the key element of social intelligence is predicting what the other creature will do, reading her mind.

8. *Teaching* is uniquely human: human babies are better at imitating, but human adults also spend a lot of time deliberately helping youngsters learn, which does not occur with either apes or baboons.

9. Baboons, apes, dogs, and probably others can understand hundreds of linguistic categories even though they produce very few.

10. Most baffling example of baboon thinking: the Lord of the Flies incident. During a water crossing, *all* the group's juveniles were separated from the adults, staying on one island (in the swamp) while the adults swam to the next. For three days, the juveniles cried out in distress -- and the adults never answered. The group was reunited only when the juveniles finally got up the courage to swim over to where the adults were.

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