Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind
Dorothy L. Cheney, Robert M. Seyfarth
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In 1838 Charles Darwin jotted in a notebook, “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Baboon Metaphysics is Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth’s fascinating response to Darwin’s challenge.
Cheney and Seyfarth set up camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where they could intimately observe baboons and their social world. Baboons live in groups of up to 150, including a handful of males and eight or nine matrilineal families of females. Such numbers force baboons to form a complicated mix of short-term bonds for mating and longer-term friendships based on careful calculations of status and individual need.
But Baboon Metaphysics is concerned with much more than just baboons’ social organization—Cheney and Seyfarth aim to fully comprehend the intelligence that underlies it. Using innovative field experiments, the authors learn that for baboons, just as for humans, family and friends hold the key to mitigating the ill effects of grief, stress, and anxiety.
Written with a scientist’s precision and a nature-lover’s eye, Baboon Metaphysics gives us an unprecedented and compelling glimpse into the mind of another species.
“The vivid narrative is like a bush detective story.”—Steven Poole, Guardian
“Baboon Metaphysics is a distillation of a big chunk of academic lives. . . . It is exactly what such a book should be—full of imaginative experiments, meticulous scholarship, limpid literary style, and above all, truly important questions.”—Alison Jolly, Science
“Cheney and Seyfarth found that for a baboon to get on in life involves a complicated blend of short-term relationships, friendships, and careful status calculations. . . . Needless to say, the ensuing political machinations and convenient romantic dalliances in the quest to become numero uno rival the bard himself.”—Science News
“Cheney and Seyfarth’s enthusiasm is obvious, and their knowledge is vast and expressed with great clarity. All this makes Baboon Metaphysics a captivating read. It will get you thinking—and maybe spur you to travel to Africa to see it all for yourself.”—Asif A. Ghazanfar, Nature
“Through ingenious playback experiments . . . Cheney and Seyfarth have worked out many aspects of what baboons used their minds for, along with their limitations. Reading a baboon’s mind affords an excellent grasp of the dynamics of baboon society. But more than that, it bears on the evolution of the human mind and the nature of human existence.”—Nicholas Wade, New York Times
Diagram Prize Nominee (2008)
alliances are low-cost signals that announce the signaler’s willingness to intervene physically if the dispute is not settled quickly. As we discussed in Chapter 4, theory predicts that animals should always attempt to settle disputes through low-cost displays that allow contestants to assess each other’s competitive ability and likelihood of support before a ﬁght escalates and results in injury (Maynard Smith 1982; 67 CHAPTER FIVE Figure 16. A juvenile female enlists the support of an adult
achieves the precision and control of many laboratory tests. We simply do not know everything that has happened to our subjects on the day they are tested, nor can we control the myriad contextual variables present under natural conditions. Many of these problems can be alleviated by allowing different trials to serve as each others’ controls. If some aspect of our protocol is inadvertently biased, then it should be equally biased across different trials. In the end, we control what we can and
rules: quarrels between families are potentially much more destructive than quarrels within families. Do baboons make classiﬁcations of this sort and form similar expectations about other individuals’ behavior? Do they recognize, for example, that the individuals in their group can be classiﬁed simultaneously according to both their dominance rank and their membership in a particular matrilineal family? And, if they do, can they recognize the signiﬁcance of a rank reversal between two females
they appear to recognize that, although predictable rank relationships are maintained both within and between matrilines, the latter are qualitatively different from the former. In their recruitment of alliance partners, too, monkeys show evidence of classifying others according to both rank and maternal kinship. Schino and his colleagues (2006) have found that Japanese macaques preferentially attempt to recruit coalition partners who are both higher-ranking and unrelated to their opponent. These
monkeys seemed to understand that, to complete the list correctly, they had to follow the lead of the monkey who was working on the same list as they were, and respond to the items in the same order as he did. Furthermore, they had to copy not just his ﬁrst choice, but also his subsequent ones. One reason why this experiment may have succeeded where so many other tests of imitation in monkeys have failed is that it did not require the monkeys to imitate a motor pattern or to learn the purpose of