A BOZO OF A BABOON: Robert Sapolsky (p5)

There's a famous passage in which Richard Dawkins responds to the argument that intrinsic to his metaphor of the selfish gene is an imperative: If genes are really selfish, the difference between "is" and "ought" is what life is about. He defends himself by saying that sometimes our genetic roots will lead us to less than appealing behaviors, but we have to learn to resist these imperatives. But somewhere in this philosophical critique is the question of where the "we" is in that sentence. Where's the "we" separate from our genes? In this case where's the "we" separate from the question of whether you have elevendy neurons in your frontal cortex or two times elevendy neurons, or a set of materialistic nuts and bolts serving as building blocks of the whole system. Where's the volition?

Bridging my interests in the lab and in the field winds up being hard because of this question of where we get the elements of personality that turn into impulsivity control. It's a couple of levels higher than what I typically do in my lab, which is to try to understand what stress does to a single neuron in a dish, and what that might have to do with depression or anxiety. At the same time it's a couple of levels below what I do with the baboons, which involves looking at who is successful in the highly competitive, back-stabbing baboon societies and what this has to do with physiology. You see the link when you observe at them for a week, and realize that success is all about impulsivity control.

On the one hand there's the view of someone like Robert Ardrey that primate social competition is all about, who's got the biggest canines, the most muscle, and the biggest balls. This view is straight-ahead and deterministic. Later, a much more p.c. version came along that held that competition is all about social intelligence, forming coalitions, and being nice in your game theory. But what really happens is that you'll get some baboon that's absolutely physically adept and by Ardrey's logic should be doing just fine. He also knows how to use social intelligence to form coalitions, and so by Howard Gardner's reckoning he should also be doing fine. However, at a critical moment he just can't stop himself from doing something stupid, impulsive, and disinhibited. Amid the physical prowess and the social intelligence, you look at the baboons that are most successful, and not coincidentally pass on more copies of their genes, and they simply have more impulsivity control.

Here’s an example: When baboons hunt together they'd love to get as much meat as possible, but they're not very good at it. The baboon is a much more successful hunter when he hunts by himself than when he hunts in a group because they screw up every time they're in a group. Say three of them are running as fast as possible after a gazelle, and they're gaining on it, and they're deadly. But something goes on in one of their minds—I'm anthropomorphizing here—and he says to himself, "What am I doing here? I have no idea whatsoever, but I'm running as fast as possible, and this guy is running as fast as possible right behind me, and we had one hell of a fight about three months ago. I don't quite know why we're running so fast right now, but I'd better just stop and slash him in the face before he gets me." The baboon suddenly stops and turns around, and they go rolling over each other like Keystone cops and the gazelle is long gone because the baboons just became disinhibited. They get crazed around each other at every juncture.

A typical male baboon is too impulsive and can't possibly do the disciplined thing. Baboons are far less disciplined than chimps and when you map their brain anatomy you notice that they don't have a whole lot of frontal cortical function. Even though there are tremendous individual differences among the baboons, they're still at this neurological disadvantage, compared to the apes, and thus they typically blow it at just the right time. They could be scheming these incredible coalitions, but at the last moment, one decides to slash his partner in the ass instead of the guy they're going after, just because he can get away with it for three seconds. The whole world is three seconds long—they're very pointillist in their emotions.

Baboons know what they're doing; they can play chess in their social landscape almost as well as chimps in terms of moving the right pieces around, but at the critical moment they simply can't stop themselves from doing the impulsive thing. I once watched a Frans de Waal film, Chimpanzee Politics, at a primate conference, and I was sitting next to another baboonologist. There is a scene where some chimp had just pulled off a brilliant Machiavellian maneuver, and the guy next to me turned and said, "Christ, that is what a baboon would be like if it had a shred of discipline or gratification-postponement." You're watching a species where most of their social complexity and social misery is built around the fact that at every logical juncture there's a pretty good chance that they're not going to have enough frontal neurons to do the prudent thing, and instead they blow it. It's amazing to study.

In the future the reductive scientific aspect of this will be to get some handle on the neurobiology of how we turn into moral, or less than moral, adults. This sounds grandiose, so a more obvious way to translate it is to ask what experience has to do with frontal development. But the undercurrent is trying to understand how we develop at the neurobiological level and how we do the difficult thing when it's the right thing to do. I suspect this project will wind up involving baboons, my children, and neurons growing in dishes, assuming that somehow it will be possible to link those levels.

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