Tuesday June 6, 2006
I’ve just finished reading Robert’s Sapolsky’s excellent book,
A Primate’s Memoir, an account of several decades studying stress amongst baboons in the wild. Sapolsky’s book is both a rip-roaring piece of travel writing and at the same time an impassioned but deeply sane reflection upon who we human primates are, and upon our relationship to the rest of the natural world.
The bulk of Sapolsky’s work involved taking copious notes upon the ever-shifting social relationships within his baboon troop, and then spearing the poor little blighters with anaesthetic darts, using a blowpipe, so that whilst the darted baboon snored happily, blood samples could be collected to be tested for stress hormones. What is interesting about Sapolsky’s research – although not at all surprising – is that for all of the sociobiologists’ talk of alpha males, dominance hierarchies and the like, stress levels were often the lowest in middle-ranking baboons who had the best, most peacable social relationships. Sure, being at the top of the pile may just possibly get you a few more mates (in the sexual sense)… but with all of that adrenaline and cortisone flooding your system, and with the increased blood pressure that results, it’s really not much fun being Baboon Number One. It plays havoc with your heart, with your immune system, with your peace of mind. Even worse, once you are Baboon Number One, the only way is down; and the descent is rarely smooth or pleasant.
So whilst rank matters to a baboon (as it does to us, whether we like it or not), what matters a lot more is the level of stability in a baboon society and how that society – baboon societies differ, as do ours – treats the lowest-ranking members. If a society is more or less stable, and if it treats those who are lower ranking reasonably well, then for the sake of your general well-being you are better off being a middle-rank or even a low-rank baboon with a bunch of friends, hanging out in the baboon equivalent of an Epicurean garden, resisting the temptation to get involved in any of that stressful power-mongering. Sapolsky says in an interview with Alan Alda, for a TV show as a part of the Scientific American Frontiers series,
You look at a single question: How often […] do you sit there, in contact with another baboon, grooming another baboon, being groomed back? Get sort of an aggregate measure of that, a sociality score, and that’s the single strongest predictor I have ever found of stress hormone levels in these animals.
Most mammals do not suffer from the kind of anticipatory stress, the nagging anxiety, that characterise the psychological lives of many primates, ourselves and baboons included. We are in the unfortunate position of being “smart enough to … get [ourselves] sick with psychological nonsense.” For slightly dumber creatures like deer, once a fleeting danger has passed, levels of stress hormones go back to normal. Lucky Bambi. But a baboon can suffer from constant stress and anxiety about its position, about dangers just round the next corner, about the sky falling on its head. And we are in the same position: clever primates saddled with this well developed cortex of ours that multiplies nightmares and not-yet-present threats, that makes us continually fret about position and status and rights and insults and slights and who is saying what about who, and to whom…
So what do you do if you are feeling grumpy and stressed? Meditation helps, although I know plenty of grumpy meditators (myself, at times, included). Hanging out with friends probably helps as well, if Sapolsky is right (and actually an hour spent with friends – or just an hour making myself socially useful, even with strangers – when I am grumpy is often far more effective than an hour of meditation).
These things seem to apply equally well whether you are human or whether you are a baboon. Baboons? Meditating? Surely not! many will cry. But then again, Barbara Smuts, another primatologist who has worked extensively in the field with baboons, tells the following story:
One experience I especially treasure. The Gombe baboons were travelling to their sleeping trees late in the day, moving slowly down a stream with many small, still pools, a route they often traversed. Without any signal perceptible to me, each baboon sat at the edge of a pool on one of the many smooth rocks that lined the edges of the stream. They sat alone or in small clusters, completely quiet, gazing at the water. Even the perpetually noisy juveniles fell into silent contemplation. I joined them. Half and hour later, again with no perceptible signal, they resumed their journey in what felt like an almost sacramental procession. I was stunned by this mysterious expression of what I have come to think of as baboon sangha…
[‘Encounters With Animal Minds’, Barbara Smuts, in Between Ourselves: Second-person issues in the study of consciousness.]
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