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April 17, 2004

Insert cheap BloggerCon joke here

Imagine the uproar if you tranquilizer-darted male bloggers in the halls of Harvard Law School. The New York Times describes a recently-published baboon study:

...Researchers describe the drastic temperamental and tonal shift that occurred in a troop of 62 baboons when its most belligerent members vanished from the scene. The victims were all dominant adult males that had been strong and snarly enough to fight with a neighboring baboon troop over the spoils at a tourist lodge garbage dump, and were exposed there to meat tainted with bovine tuberculosis, which soon killed them. Left behind in the troop, designated the Forest Troop, were the 50 percent of males that had been too subordinate to try dump brawling, as well as all the females and their young. With that change in demographics came a cultural swing toward pacifism, a relaxing of the usually parlous baboon hierarchy, and a willingness to use affection and mutual grooming rather than threats, swipes and bites to foster a patriotic spirit.

Remarkably, the Forest Troop has maintained its genial style over two decades, even though the male survivors of the epidemic have since died or disappeared and been replaced by males from the outside. (As is the case for most primates, baboon females spend their lives in their natal home, while the males leave at puberty to seek their fortunes elsewhere.) The persistence of communal comity suggests that the resident baboons must somehow be instructing the immigrants in the unusual customs of the tribe.

"We don't yet understand the mechanism of transmittal," said Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford, "but the jerky new guys are obviously learning, `We don't do things like that around here.' "

...The new-fashioned Forest Troop is no United Nations, or even the average frat house. Its citizens remain highly aggressive and argumentative, and the males still obsess over hierarchy. "We're talking about baboons here," said Dr. Sapolsky.

...Jerkiness or worse certainly seems to be a job description for ordinary male baboons. The average young male, after wheedling his way into a new troop at around age 7, spends his prime years seeking to fang his way up the hierarchy; and once he's gained some status, he devotes many a leisure hour to whimsical displays of power at scant personal cost. He harasses and attacks females, which weigh half his hundred pounds and lack his thumb-thick canines, or he terrorizes the low-ranking males he knows cannot retaliate.

...Dr. Sapolsky has no idea how long the good times will last. "I confess I'm rooting for the troop to stay like this forever, but I worry about how vulnerable they may be," he said. "All it would take is two or three jerky adolescent males entering at the same time to tilt the balance and destroy the culture."

"Hey, look! The comments link!"

Posted by Brenden at April 17, 2004 9:46 PM


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