Let’s hope climate change doesn’t play out like this

July 18, 2010

It’s primate blogging day, apparently. My last post excerpted from a piece by Jonah Lehrer. This post excerpts from David Dobbs’s wonderful article in the December 2009 Atlantic, on children who are highly sensitive to their social environments. I detest the title — “The Science of Success” — but love the content. If I were editing a science writing anthology, this story would have easily made the short list. I’ll have more to say about it later. For now, the primate stuff:

One morning this past May, Elizabeth Mallott, a researcher working at Suomi’s lab, arrived to start her day at the main rhesus enclosure and found a half-dozen monkeys in her parking spot. They were huddling close together, bedraggled and nervous. As Mallott got out of her car and moved closer, she saw that some had bite wounds and scratches. Most monkeys who jump the enclosure’s double electrified fences (it happens now and then) soon want to get back in. These monkeys did not. Neither did several others that Mallott found between the two fences.


It soon became apparent that the family group called Family 3, which for decades had ranked second to a group called Family 1, had staged a coup. Family 3 had grown larger than Family 1 several years before. But Family 1, headed by a savvy matriarch named Cocobean, had retained incumbency through authority, diplomacy, and momentum. A week or so before the coup, however, one of Cocobean’s daughters, Pearl, had been moved from the enclosure to the veterinary facility because her kidneys seemed to be failing. Family 1’s most formidable male, meanwhile, had grown old and arthritic. Pearl was especially close to Cocobean and, as the only daughter without children of her own, was particularly likely to defend her. Her absence, along with the male’s infirmity, created a vulnerable moment for Family 1.

As an aside on JR’s phallocentric epistemology, it took me 3 or 4 read-throughs to realize what Dobbs was saying here: The other rhesus monkeys apparently considered Pearl, a female, to be capable of acting aggressively to defend Cocobean, her mother. Maybe the other monkeys had read this.


“This may have been in the works for a couple weeks,” Novak says. “But as far as we can reconstruct, the actual event, the night before we found the monkeys in the parking lot, started when a young female named Fiona”–a 3-year-old Family 1 member, a borderline bully known to have initiated many a scuffle–“started something with someone in Family 3. It escalated. Family 3 saw its chance. And they just started to take Family 1 out. You could see it from who was wounded and who wasn’t, and who was sitting in preferred places, and who was run out of the colony, and who was suddenly extremely deferential. One other female in Family 1, Quark, was killed; another, Josie, was hurt so badly we had to put her down. They’d gone after all of Cocbean’s other daughters, too. Somebody had bitten the big male in Family 1 so badly he couldn’t use his arm. Fiona got roughed up pretty bad. It was a very systematic scuffle. They went right at the head of the group and worked their way down.”

I don’t read a lot of fiction — Pops Minkel’s bookshelf was heavily biased towards science and science fiction — so this passage really stood out to me. Surely there are Russian novels that have similar plot summaries.

It also made me wonder about the unspoken rules that govern behavior in human social groups. Consider that the rhesus monkeys described above seem to be matriarchal. Would a modern society necessarily dominated by women necessarily be less patriarchal than a male-dominated one? Women are no more “naturally” peaceful than men are naturally violent, right? So as women in our society embed themselves in historically patriarchal institutions of commerce and governance, how much will the institutions themselves change, and how much will women mold themselves to fit social expectations of masculine behavior?

More generally, how do we enact radical social change in a peaceful way?


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