Readers of Robert M. Sapolsky’s sprightly book A Primate’s Memoir doubtless treasure memories of his adventures in Africa and his insights into the affairs of the baboons that he spied on, lived with, and darted with sedatives.

His latest article, in the current issue of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, may leave out the travel/adventure aspect of his life, but it more than makes up for that with an update on the affairs of the “Forest Troop”—the baboons that captivated him and his readers. Best of all, the new article has some arresting information and conclusions about primate peacefulness.

The author begins by reviewing the literature about primate violence and peacefulness, a useful overview for readers who have been convinced by writers such as Robert Ardrey or Michael Ghigliere that humans, like others primates, are hard-wired for violence. In fact, the violence/peacefulness of primates is a complex subject, and Sapolsky makes it clear that earlier writers frequently oversimplified their arguments. He presents an excellent summary of the debates. Some primates are highly violent, others are quite peaceful, and still others can be both. For Sapolsky, the challenge is to figure out why these differences exist and to see if there are lessons for humanity.

He explains that while some baboon males exhibit plenty of aggressive behavior when they seek dominance in their troops, the successful breeders are not necessarily the alpha males. Male baboons who focus their lives primarily on building affiliative relations with the females—grooming them, helping with child care, acting peacefully—appear to have as much opportunity to breed as the dominating, aggressive males. The bullies don’t always get the chicks. As Sapolsky says, “the crude picture of combat as the sole path to evolutionary success is wrong” (p.109).

When he describes cooperative behavior among baboons and other primates, the picture becomes confusing. He observed male-male baboon cooperative arrangements that quickly fell apart due to self-interest. Reconciliation and cooperative behaviors among primates do exist, he explains, but only to a limited degree.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the article is his account of the “Forest Troop” that he started studying decades ago. Readers of his book will remember the ending, how some males from Forest Troop began aggressively invading the food source of another troop that lived next to the dump of a large tourist lodge not too far away from the author’s study site. Unfortunately, the garbage dump became tainted with bad meat scraps, which caused fatal tuberculosis in the animals that ate them. Sapolsky feared that his entire study group of baboons would also die from the contagious disease.

They didn’t, in fact. In this article, he brings us up to date. While the “Garbage Dump Troop” did all die, their deaths were apparently caused by eating the bad food, not from the contagiousness of the disease. The only members of the Forest Troop that died were the ones that had actually visited the dump and eaten the food too. Hence, the aggressive males from Forest Troop, the ones that had invaded the territory of the Garbage Dump Troop, were doomed, but the rest of the Forest Troop survived without them.

With the aggressive males culled out, the females, the un-aggressive males, and the youngsters were left to rebuild their society. The result is that Forest Troop has become quite peaceful. The hierarchy of remaining baboons is looser than before the die-off, and dominant males rarely harass subordinate males. Aggression against third parties lessened, while rates of affiliative behavior increased.

The real surprise, to Sapolsky, became apparent years later, after the original baboons in the troop at the time of the die-off had themselves passed away. The culture of peacefulness in the troop remained intact—as it does to the present time. The author describes some significant differences in the social milieu of the Forest Troop compared to other baboon troops.

Adolescent males, which in baboon societies normally leave their birth troops to live with other groups, are usually ignored for a long time after they relocate. In such troops, the dominating males act aggressively toward the very low ranking immigrant juveniles, and the females refrain from displaying any receptiveness toward them.

Not so in the post-TB die-off Forest Troop. Shortly after moving in, the immigrant juvenile males receive sexual attentions and overtures from females. As Sapolsky summarizes his observations of the baboons, “from almost the moment they arrive … new males find out that in Forest Troop, things are done differently” (p.117). Sort of like Western teenage males moving in with a peaceful human society—everything would be different.

The author suspects that this unique baboon culture is probably not actively passed on to successive generations, but that it emerges and continues from the ways the residents continue to act. He speculates that the females in the troop, with only the less aggressive males to deal with, became less wary and more relaxed, more willing to take chances with incoming juveniles from other troops. As a result, the immigrant juvenile males also relax the patterns they learned in their natal troops. Treated well by the resident females, they adopt the cultural patterns of their new group.

Sapolsky concludes with some very interesting ideas about the possible transferability of the data on primate social behavior to human societies. It may be going too far to label Forest Troop as a “peaceful society,” but can the unique structure of peacefulness in one baboon troop suggest the possibility of humans forming peaceful societies? Sapolsky responds, “anyone who says, ‘No, it is beyond our nature,’ knows too little about primates, including ourselves” (p.120).

We can hope that the diplomats, politicians, scholars and analysts around the world who read this journal will consider the notion that peacefulness can be fostered by other conditions than just warfare. The article is available, at least for the moment, on the Foreign Affairs website, and paper subscriptions to the journal are carried by many libraries.

Sapolsky, Robert M. 2006. “A Natural History of Peace.” Foreign Affairs 85(1): 104-120