How baby baboons learn their place

July 18, 2010

From Wired 18.08, the prolific Jonah Lehrer on the effects of psychosocial stress:

After that first trip in 1978, Sapolsky began spending every summer in Kenya. In the early 1980s, he happened upon a rare event in the baboon troop: The highest-ranking female and a low-ranking female gave birth to daughters just a few days apart. Sapolsky realized that these newcomers would allow him to compare the effects of social status on development. The first thing he noticed was that the high-ranking daughter hit every developmental landmark faster. She walked first, ate solid food earlier, and had far more interactions with other baboons. The lesson, Sapolsky says, is that “status comes with privileges,” and these privileges are present from the start of life.

Sapolsky describes a poignant scene that took place a few weeks after the births, when the newborns encountered each other for the first time. “They can barely get around, but they’re both so excited to see another baby,” he says. “And so the low-ranking kid goes wobbling over to say hi. But then, just as she gets near, the low-ranking mom grabs her daughter and drags her back. The poor kid has no ideas what’s happened, but she’s just gotten her first lesson in the social hierar-chy. The high-ranking kid is not somebody she can play with.”

For Sapolsky, the tragedy of such inter-actions is their lasting legacy. “I can come back 25 years later, when these kids are two old matriarchs, and they’ll be acting out the exact same dynamic. When they meet, the low-ranking baboon will just stare at the  groun. That’s what her mom was trying to teach her. She was being taught how to live with low rank. She was learning how to cope.”

I read this passage while waiting for service to start this morning at a small, unpretentious church near Meharry and Fisk, two HBCUs in north Nashville. I immediately wondered what would have happened if the mother hadn’t been there to pull her daughter back. Would the two little baboons have struck up a friendship? Or would the interaction have been crushed by other status-conscious adults? And if so, would the low-ranking juvenile have survived to learn her lesson?

I turned 31 two days ago, and I don’t know what my place is. I guess a lot of people can say the same. I was at church this morning because I want to begin constructing a place for myself that I can be proud of. I can’t tell how stupid that all sounds, but I’m sure you’ll let me know in comments.

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One Response to “How baby baboons learn their place”

  1. Michael Vine Says:

    It’s easy to be stupid. Lucky we’re not left alone to marinate in it forever, huh? (“That’s what friends are for!”)

    In other exciting news, pride is overrated. Be thankful instead.

    Also, be sure to temper your ruminations on “place” with a whole lotta “mutable”.

    That will be all.


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