BOZO OF A BABOON: Robert
extremely hard to get at neurobiologically, but is quite essential.
When I think about it, however, I realize that this doesn't begin
to match up to a much harder problem. We have a pretty good sense
of reward, punishment, and the neurochemistry of anticipation in
the brain by now. We know how to train a rat or a human to perform
a behavior in exchange for a reward. We understand exactly what is
happening during the interim between having performed a behavior
and knowing that a reward is going to come. We know that a burst
of dopamine has much to do with the anticipation of pleasure and
reward. Building on our understanding of how to make synapses change
over time as the result of experience, learning, and memory, it's
not hard to imagine how to put those two pieces together to begin
to get experience training the system so that the length of time
you are willing to wait for the reward gets longer and longer.
Knowing that studying like crazy will give you amazing MCAT scores is one example
of gratification postponement. We understand that the brain's basic structure
enables it to do the right thing because it gets a reward, giving it the metaphorical
backbone, the robustness, if you will, to do the right thing and to wait for
the reward. If we can understand this there's going to be a great amount of good
for the world. If we can get brains to be better at gratification postponement—because
ultimately altruistic behavior is about reciprocity—it's eventually going
to pay off.
The neo-cortex is one of the parts of the brain that ages dramatically, and has
something to do with personality disinhibition in old age. An example of this
occurs when suddenly Grandma is pissing off her teenage granddaughter by telling
her exactly what she thinks of that new outfit. In a sense, understanding that
problem, either at the level of baboons or humans, is going to be worth the trouble.
It will address questions like: How do we get reinforced? How do we socially
construct gratification postponement, down to the level of neurology? How does
experience make for a frontal cortex that's more robustly able to make you hold
This neurological science also has political implications and even concerns sociopathic
con-men. It relates to the question of how we understand that there are other
organisms out there with different world views and emotions. It is very intrinsic
to empathy. Sociopathic con-men have spectacular theories of mind. They're extremely
good at exploiting somebody else's knowledge and emotions, as are most cult leaders,
and the really good ones have frontal cortices that make them very disciplined.
The problem that strikes me as totally impossible is one step beyond that, and
requires a certain amount of extrapolation. It is one thing to say, "Do
the right thing you get the reward right now." It is another to say, "Do
the right thing and you will get the reward in 60 years," or "Do the
right thing and you will get the reward in your afterlife." That's fine
and interesting, but the most challenging moral quandaries arise because of circumstances
where there is no chance you're going to be rewarded, where, in fact, you will
be punished for your stance.
For example, think of civil disobedience. Are you willing to sacrifice yourself
to do the right thing? There are many realms of martyrdom for what you perceive
to be the right thing and for which there is no reward. What do you do if you
have a non-theological framework and you can't content yourself with afterlife?
It can't have anything to do with the frontal cortex.
The minute you're in the realm of Sister Helen Prejean, the nun featured in the
movie Dead Man Walking you have left the primates far behind. How can
someone spend all thie time ministering to the most deplorable, scum-of-the-earth
people? Prejean says that what has to be the case is that the less lovable they
are the more you have to love them. The less likelihood of reward, the more you
have to be willing to do the right thing and get punished. This is the realm
where Kierkegaard said that Christians need to be able to contain two contradictory
facts in their head simultaneously, where the more explicitly faith is challenged,
the more irrefutably it is negated, the more there must be faith. Nothing in
primatology or in your dopamine reward pathways can explain that. This is off
the edge of the cliff into a completely different realm.
Incredibly few people live lives where they get no reward. This behavior is certainly
maladaptive, since by definition you're not going to be passing on copies of
your genes, and neither is your kin line. You can't come up with any sort of
adaptive argument that involves doing the incredibly self-sacrificial right thing,
and getting punished for it.
The typical male baboon career trajectory is to fight your way to the top while
building some good coalitional skills. When you're relatively high-ranking and
if you're going to stay up there, you switch from physical prowess to psychological
intimidation and social skills. But eventually it catches up with you and you
finally get into a key fight and get killed or crippled or are utterly defeated
and you crash way down. However, every decade you'll get some guy who's fought
his way up, and six months into his ascendancy suddenly decides, "Who needs
this?" and voluntarily walks away from it. They seem to have some sort of
epiphanal mid-life crisis and go on to spend the rest of their lives hanging
out with infants and forming social attachments with females.
Ten years ago the evolutionary community would have had a derisive response to
this, saying that while this may be terrific, it's not a very successful adaptive
strategy because this guy is walking away from the competitive world of maximizing
his reproductive success. Now, however, genetic studies are beginning to show
that these guys out-reproduce the slash-and-burn competitive guys, because they
last for years afterward without getting seriously injured and form this female
affiliate. This is what happened to Benjamin, my bozo of a baboon, who during
his brief ascendancy became a jerk. A terribly unlikely civil war had broken
out in the troop and it was in the aftermath of every plausible candidate having
been done in that he actually managed to stumble into the alpha position for
about and was as incompetent as he could be.
He had no idea what he was doing, he was anxious, and displacing aggression onto
every possible innocent bystander. Then he had an experience that demonstrated
exactly the cognitive limits in a baboon. They’re smart, but they’re
not chimps. Benjamin was leading a procession as they were coming back at the
end of the day along a path and through some bushes. He’s leading the way,
proud as hell of himself. But the fact is alpha male baboons do not lead processions
because they just joined the troop a couple of years ago and they have no idea
where anybody’s processing – the 20-year old matriarchs do.
But Benjamin just happened to be in front of the troop, heading toward the forest,
marching along, never looking back. Unbeknownst to him, the matriarch, who’s
two steps behind him, veers off into the bushes to the right, and 80 baboons
follow her while he continues walking going straight forward. Eventually Benjamin
stops, looks back and freaks out. His hair stands up, and he starts his wahoo
calling, which is how he spent a large part of his adult life: "Where is
everybody?!" And he then has a moment where you know exactly what he’s
thinking. He walks over to my Jeep and looks underneath, like—are 60 baboons
hiding under there waiting to surprise him? But no baboons. He sits down by the
Jeep, looking really demoralized and vaguely humiliated. This is what he’s
alpha for? Eventually he hears baboons burping nearby in the bushes and starts
looking for them again—they’re underneath the car! once again he
goes over to the jeep and bends over—in this ridiculous position his head
between his legs, looking for his fellow baboons. It was a fabulous moment.
For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man—if
I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is
important—balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm
of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for
an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with
females, don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept
socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that's not what pays off
in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could
not have said that when I was 25.
According to an unexpected finding called female choice it turns out that females
have a hell of a lot of control over who they're mating with, and, irrationally
enough, they like to mate with guys that are nice to them! You see this dynamic
when some guy from the male-male competitive world pops out and is supposed to
be her mate. She wants to run off to the bushes with Alan Alda, and manipulates
the social situation to pull this off.
A handful of these guys simply walked away from it over the years. Nathaniel
was one, and Joshua was another. They had the lowest stress hormone levels you've
ever seen in male baboons, and outlived their cohorts. The fact that this alternative
strategy is actually the more adaptive one is one of the good bits of news to
come out of primatology in quite some time. If that's the future of primates,
this planet is going to be in great shape in a couple of million years.
How much this pops up in other species—chimps, for example—is not
as clear. Chimps intrinsically have a different version of being aggressive because
whereas male baboons change troops at puberty—meaning that all the adult
males in a troop are unrelated—male chimps spend their whole lives in the
same group. It’s the females who change tropps. A group containing big
adult males who've known each other their whole lives, being related to some
degree, is a prescription for dangerous males, and the building block of organized
warfare. And that's exactly what chimps do; they patrol their borders. It's a
very similar demographic pattern to what is seen in patrilocal nomadic pastoralist
cultures, the folks who invented warrior classes.
pastoralist societies try to increase the sense of relatedness amongst
the warriors, melding them together, creating a pseudo-kinship among
young men who feel like they've known each other long enough to be
willing to put their necks on the line for each other. That is one
hell of a prescription for trouble for the neighbors. You sure decrease
the homicide rate within the group and you've virtually invented
genocide, and chimps were the first ones to get this one going. It's
a scary combination.