Hopeful Violence-is-cultural Story
Luke M. relates (see linked discussion):
Baboons… literally have been the textbook example of a highly aggressive, male-dominated, hierarchical society. Because these animals hunt, because they live in these aggressive troupes on the Savannah (just like we humans used to, and thus we evolved similarly), they have a constant baseline level of aggression which inevitably spills over into their social lives.
Scientists have never observed a baboon troupe that wasn’t highly aggressive, and they have compelling reasons to think this is simply baboon nature, written into their genes. Inescapable.
Or at least, that was true until the 1980s, when Kenya experienced a tourism boom.
Sapolsky was a grad student, studying his first baboon troupe. A new tourist lodge was built at the edge of the forest where his baboons lived. The owners of the lodge dug a hole behind the lodge and dumped their trash there every morning, after which the males of several baboon troupes — including Sapolsky’s — would fight over this pungent bounty.
Before too long, someone noticed the baboons didn’t look too good. It turned out they had eaten some infected meat and developed tuberculosis, which kills baboons in weeks. Their hands rotted away, so they hobbled around on their elbows. Half the males in Sapolsky’s troupe died.
This had a surprising effect. There was now almost no violence in the troupe. Males often reciprocated when females groomed them, and males even groomed other males. To a baboonologist, this was like watching Mike Tyson suddenly stop swinging in a heavyweight fight to start nuzzling Evander Holyfield. It never happened.
This was interesting, but Sapolsky moved to the other side of the park and began studying other baboons. His first troupe “scientifically ruined” by such a non-natural event. But really, he was just heartbroken. He never visited.
Six years later, Sapolsky wanted to show his girlfriend where he had studied his first troupe, and found that they were still there, and still surprisingly violence-free. This one troupe had apparently been so transformed by their unusual experience — and the continued availability of easy food — that they were now basically non-violent.
And then it hit him.
Only one of the males now in the troupe had been through the event. All the rest were new, and hadn’t been raised in the tribe. The new males had come from the violent, dog-eat-dog world of normal baboon-land. But instead of coming into the new troupe and roughing everybody up as they always did, the new males had learned, “We don’t do stuff like that here.” They had unlearned their childhood culture and adapted to the new norms of the first baboon pacifists.
As it turned out, violence wasn’t an unchanging part of baboon nature. In fact it changed rather quickly, when the right causal factor flipped, and — for this troupe and the new males coming in — it has stayed changed to this day.
Somehow, the violence had been largely circumstantial. It was just that the circumstances had always been the same.
Until they weren’t.