By Peg

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Categories: Cranky Crankier Crankiest, Occupy Love


Alpha behavior and extinction

Disclaimer: I do not advocate killing off  alpha males. And I’m not necessarily saying that aggressive, hostile men are baboons.

Once upon a time a tribe of 62 baboons were living a very typical baboon life in Kenya. Like most baboon communities, the Forest Troop was dominated by a small number of large, nasty-spirited and bullying male baboons. These dominant males made the women and the smaller, less aggressive males miserable by abusing and mistreating them. And as sometimes happens, the baboons who were being abused by the biggest and meanest were taking out their frustration on the younger and smaller members of the community, who were then bullying those even younger and smaller than they were.

We know all this because the Forest Troop was visited and studied every summer by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford.

Then, about 20 years ago, nature proved that the survival of the fittest may not always look the way we think it looks.

Because they were big and strong and aggressive, the dominant males in the Forest Troop fought off the competition for what seemed to be a major coup: a nice, big juicy pile of meat. Which happened to be tainted with bovine tuberculosis. Oops. All the alpha males in the Forest Troop died.

One might think that the others in the community who had been oppressed for so long would now step up and take over all the chest-thumping behavior. Not so. For 20 years now, the community has maintained a peaceful and nurturing atmosphere, even to the extent of communicating to incoming adolescent males from other, more typical baboon communities that mean, nasty behavior will not be tolerated in the Forest Troop.

I first heard this story on a National Geographic documentary about stress. This small part of the bigger story fascinated me and I Googled around until I found a New York Times story that referenced the same research. Although the study in question was about stress, I also see a wonderful object lesson about the potential for all the mean-and-nasty among us to make themselves extinct with the very attitudes and behaviors that they believe make them kings of the hill.

I’m not holding my breath, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the human race could prove itself to be wiser than a tribe of baboons by learning the lesson the primates had to learn the hard way?

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One Response

  1. Roxann Pearson April 17, 2011 | 11:48 pm

    I’m not holding my breath either, but yes, most assuredly, this WOULD be wonderful!

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