BOZO OF A BABOON: Robert
people on the sociobiological end figured out how to repackage themselves.
They got rid of that label because it had so many bad connotations
and reinvented themselves as evolutionary psychologists. They did
it at a time when everybody else was more interested in hostile takeovers
or cashing in on the '80s so somehow it didn't ignite as a lightning
rod. They're a perfectly respectable discipline, which means they
have as many people saying they make no sense as do the literary
analysts. Somehow they've reinvented themselves that way, and so
a lot of the furor has died down.
A critical juncture in my own career occurred in my freshman year of college.
I went to study with Irwin DeVore. He was the grand old man of baboon research,
and had done the first studies of baboons in the wild. During my freshman year
he had a minor heart attack, and canceled his classes. So, on a whim, I took
an introductory neurobiology class and was blown away by the possibility of getting
at some of the issues I'd been thinking about—complex social behaviors
and individual personality differences—instead of an evolutionary model
From this angle you could begin to understand what's going on in the brain.
That generated a crisis in me for the rest of college. I asked myself, "Am
I a neurobiologist? Am I a zoologist?" If I was going to spend the rest
of my life in a tent in hiking shoes, what was I doing pipetting stuff in a lab
at two in the morning, and oscillating between lab and primate research. Still
uncertain at the end of college I delayed graduate school in neurobiology for
a year and a half to go out and start this baboon field project. It looked like
I was heading in the direction of neurobiology, and I wanted to get at least
one shot out there in the field. But I came back realizing there was no way in
hell that this was going to be my only time out in the field. Ever since I have
been dealing with an intellectual tension that vacillates between the two ends.
it's as interesting to study primate researchers as it is to study
the apes, baboons, and monkeys. There's something of a caste system
at work. There’s a definite envy among the people who study
monkeys of the folks who study the big glamor picture apes.
You feel as if you’ve crossed this species barrier divide and all of
that, and the least you can wind up doing is getting something that makes tools.
The monkey researchers feel subordinated by the ape researchers, but at least
there’s all these prosimian researchers we can dump on, making these
snotty taxonomic arguments as to whether prosimians even count as primates.
If anything, the hierarchy usually runs within species. It’s the style
that at one extreme you’ve got excessive reductive types who are quantifying
the number of blades of grass per hour that their species eats, and do time
budget analyses as a function of the thickness of the ozone layer and their
papers are total hard-ass science: it’s math and it’s equations,
and often horrndously boring, at lease to me. At the other extreme you have
the people who have no idea how to do any quantitative science and they come
back with the most amazing observations of stuff that strikes home. You’ve
got cultural transmission and you’ve got tool use and you’ve got
what appear to be psychiatric disorders and primates’ grief..., but all
in this really unscientific framework. And each camp is utterly contemptuous
of the other.
In terms of the two extremes, I'll just be nice enough to say that that the
reductionists tend to be behavior ecologist types, people who get in the pattern
of counting numbers of leaves and are kind of stuck in that pattern for much
of the rest of their life—it's a data-heavy end.
Then there's the "Oh, my God, these people have no numbers in their papers
except the page numbers and the volumes, but what they're doing is interesting".
the latter is the crowd that changes our perception of ourselves
as a species. Jane Goodall of course is the goddess of this realm.
When you look at the people in between, the best example is Frans
De Waal, who has brought rigorous, quantitative science on which
can do bigtime statistical analysis, but he's looking at amazing
questions of primate politics, and political behavior and coalitional
In that regard he has wedded the two traditions better than anyone. He's definitely
the 600-pound gorilla in the field, as well he should be, but it depends heavily
on whether or not you're a primate ecology type, the folks that are actually
out there getting shot at by poachers—they get tremendous moral currency
for what they're doing—versus the folks that are more vivisection oriented,
working with captive primates. In some ways it's a very scattered community,
utterly divided between hard-nosed scientific research basic science folks,
versus the conservation folks versus the sentimentalist story tellers. It's
a very odd community. And, as it turns out, it's a very un-housebroken community.
I've always been interested in figuring out how to assimilate being a basic
lab scientist—locked up with a bunch of rats or a bunch of neurons growing
in a dish, and using a very reductive approach to figure out how the brain
works—with my alternative life of the past 25 years which has involved
looking at primate physiology and social behavior in East Africa. It's been
this process of trying to figure out how to bridge the bottom-up lab approach
and the top-down field approach to begin to get a sense of where our individual
differences come from, how experience shapes the brain, and how adverse experiences
in the form of stress shape the brain. Not surprisingly, I don't feel as if
I've merged the two halves very effectively.
In the last couple of years I've realized where I want to take this in the
next decade or so. This is one of those ideas that requires having kids since
suddenly you find development to be fascinating. I've got a three-year-old
and a six-year-old and what I'm finding most interesting right now is the realm
of moral development. This interest is probably right on schedule for a parent
of a kid in a certain range.
Moral development is very heavily built around a part of the brain I used to
ignore because you don't find much of it in a lab rat: the frontal cortex.
The frontal cortex is an incredibly interesting part of the brain, since it's
the nearest thing we've got to a super-ego. It's the part of the brain that
keeps us from belching loudly during the wedding ceremony, or telling somebody
exactly what we think of the meal they made, or being a serial murderer. It's
the part of the brain that controls impulsivity, that accepts the postponement
of gratification, that does constraint and anticipation, and that makes you
work hard because you will get into an amazing nursing home one day if you
just keep pushing hard enough. It's all about this very human realm of holding
off for later.
The most amazing thing is that there is a dogma of neural development. The
dogma is that by the time you're a couple of years old, you have your maximal
number of neurons, and all of them are wired up and functioning. But it turns
out that we make new neurons throughout life, and parts of the brain don't
come fully on line until later. And, amazingly, the last area to do so is the
frontal cortex, not until around age 30 or so. It's the last part of the brain
to develop, and thus it's the part whose development is most subject to experience,
environment, reinforcement, and the social world around you. That is incredibly
To put this in personal terms, my six-year-old might do something appallingly
horrible and selfish and age appropriate to one of my three-year-old's toys.
As a parent you swoop in and say, "This is not acceptable and you cannot
do that." But just as I (or my wife who is a clinical nurse-psychologist,
and so, pathetically, we actually speak like this at home) am saying this,
the other will say, "He can't help it; he doesn't have a frontal cortex
yet," to which the first inevitably responds, "But how else is he
going to get one?"
The concept of there being consequences to your actions is second nature to
people who think about child development, and certainly about moral development
in kids, but how does that get translated down to this nuts-and-bolts level
of the brain? How does "How else is he going to learn about it?" turn
into a frontal cortex that allows him someday to do the right thing even though
it's the harder thing, and even though everybody else is doing something else?
How does someone learn when it is important to step away from the crowd at
the critical moment? This question is turning into the one that really fascinates
me, and it's not a terribly easy problem to go after.