A BOZO OF A BABOON: Robert Sapolsky (p6)

This is 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 your breath?

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.

These 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.

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