by Hugh Gilmore
In the first two parts of this series, I described how I came to be in Kenya for a year and a half, doing a scientific study of a troop of about 80 baboons. The group was dubbed the Pump House Gang by the researchers who’d preceded me. I walked among them for long parts of nearly every day, taking notes on their behaviors, learning to see life from a baboon perspective. When done, I hoped to make some conjectures about how certain human behaviors, especially as regards communication, might have evolved.
At the end of my first week of walking among the Pump House Gang, if you had asked me to describe the nature of baboon life in a word, I’d have said “chaotic.” Nothing made sense. Lots of movement, all of it random. Lots of noise, none of it sensible. All that changed once I began using the rough set of drawings and descriptions I’d been given and learned their names (i.e. names given them by the previous researchers).
For example, while the troop was spread out over an area the size of a basketball court, busily pulling up dried grass clumps to get at the small, nutritious, energy-storing organs called corms that cling to the roots, two youngsters suddenly started squalling. Another slightly larger young baboon ran over and gave one of them a bite. The victim squealed in protest.
Two other young animals rushed over and threatened the biter, who screeched his own complaint. Another larger animal ran over, barking, and baring his teeth, then a few adult females joined the squabble. And an instant later a bunch of baboons were chasing another bunch of baboons and, almost as suddenly as the trouble started, it was over.
This raucous burst of nastiness involved perhaps 10 animals altogether. The other 70 just kept feeding and hardly any of them bothered to look up. I thought nothing of it. Such events happened often, every day. Just little rumbles in the jungle, if you will.
But after a while, after I had learned the animals’ “names” and their relationships with one another, what had seemed arbitrary and chaotic began making sense. I’ll retell the story given above now with a little more information. It reads like a teacher’s schoolyard recess report:
Two-year-old Pancho walked up and took the feeding spot away from 3-year-old Zachary, who screamed in protest. Pancho’s big sister ran over and bit Zachary. Zachary’s brother and cousin ran over and barked at her. Pancho’s big brother and his cousin joined the fray. Zachary’s older brother and sister ran over and started threatening them. Pancho’s mother, joined by her consort male, ran at them and together Pancho’s family routed Zachary’s family, who fled to the edge of the feeding zone. Then the participants walked back to their feeding spots and life resumed.
Moral of the story: mess with one baboon and you’ll get his or her whole family messing back at you. Those were not random individuals barking, biting and chasing one another. As the old saying goes, “I against my brother. My brother and I against my cousin. My brother and cousin and I against the world.”
And why not? Let’s add more information. In the dry season on the savannah, food is very scarce. One very nutritious item on the baboon menu is the cluster of corms that grow beneath the grass. Most corms are the size of a pea. Grass does not grow on the savannah the way it grows on your lawn. It grows in scattered clumps, the way it does on my lawn. And it takes a lot of strength to pull up a clump, so the adult animals are usually the first exploiters of a feeding patch.
Once an adult gets a clod pulled out of the earth, he or she starts picking the corms, one by one, the way you might eat from a blueberry patch. The number of hand to mouth movements per minute is called the pick rate. A high rate means there are a lot of corms present. When the pick rate slows down, that means there isn’t much food left. Not worth the time it takes to harvest a few more. The adult abandons his patch and walks over to pull up a fresh bunch. Hard work, but apparently deliciously rewarding for the baboons. In a fair world each profits by his own efforts.
But baboons do not live in what we would call a fair world. They live in a Hobbesian world. One where, say, Big Al, his pick rate slowed down, looks over and sees that Brutus is picking away at his own patch in a fast and furious manner. Big Al walks over to Brutus, who gets up, looking rather resentful, and relinquishes the spot to Big Al. Like getting beat up for your lunch money.
Baboons, both male and female, live in a world established by brute force and alliances. Brutus had been thrashed by Al enough times in the past that he will not fight for his food, not against Al anyway. He now has a choice of either supplanting another baboon he knows he can beat, or starting another patch and eating from it as quickly as he can before he loses that one, too, to Al again.
Now, I’ll add another piece of information. The patch that Big Al abandoned did not have enough corms remaining to feed an adult. But it was good enough for a youngster, so young Zachary rushed over and hurriedly began eating. But then young Pancho displaced him. Zachary was the son of Zelda, the tenth-ranked baboon in the female hierarchy. Pancho’s mother, Peggy, was the alpha female in the troop. There ya go.
Bump, then bump again, down the line. Over everything. Once I knew the baboons’ names and familial relationships, what had seemed like random squabbles became understandable demonstrations of the nature of their social order. And had a bearing on the animals’ survival. In sum: Family alliances govern baboon social life.
Do these observations tell us anything about the nature of human nature? That is the grist that feeds the mighty theory mills of anthropology, psychology, biology, sociology, philosophy, “The Daily Show” and Fox News.
— To be continued
Hugh Gilmore latest book is “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Highly reviewed, it is available through leading bookstores and Amazon.com.