Eric Michael Johnson is my kind of science blogger

September 2, 2010

In my last post I asked for a science of human nature that acknowledged the need for social change. Well, ask and ye shall receive:

To illustrate how powerful the influence of culture can be for primate societies consider the most extreme example of a sexually coercive species: savanna baboons. Males have been known to viciously maul a female that has rejected their advances and the level of male aggression is strongly correlated with their mating success. However, in a unique natural experiment Stanford primatologist Robert Sapolsky observed what developed when the largest and most aggressive males died out in a group known as Forest Troop (because they were feeding at the contaminated dump site of a Western safari lodge). In the intervening years Forest Group developed a culture in which kindness was rewarded more than aggression and adolescent males who migrated into the troop adopted this culture themselves. As Sapolsky related in his essay A Natural History of Peace for the journal Foreign Affairs:

The results were that Forest Troop was left with males who were less aggressive and more social than average and the troop now had double its previous female-to-male ratio. The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before: compared with other, more typical savanna baboon groups, high-ranking males rarely harassed subordinates and occasionally even relinquished contested resources to them. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other – a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings. . . By the early 1990s, none of the original low aggression/high affiliation males of Forest Troop’s tuberculosis period was still alive; all of the group’s adult males had joined after the epidemic. Despite this, the troop’s unique social milieu persisted – as it does to this day, some 20 years after the selective bottleneck.

In other words, adolescent males that enter Forest Troop after having grown up elsewhere wind up adopting the unique behavioral style of the resident males. As defined by both anthropologists and animal behaviorists, “culture” consists of local behavioral variations, occurring for nongenetic and nonecological reasons, that last beyond the time of their originators. Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture.

These nonhuman primate examples suggest that an increased focus on women’s rights might not only reduce the current levels of sexual coercion but could benefit society as a whole. If women have increased social power (both politically and economically) they would be better able to resist male sexual coercion due to stronger networks of social support. At the same time this increased social power would be expected to help create a change in male culture that would influence how young men interact with women when trying to gain sexual access. While specific policies that protect women from coercion and exploitation remain important, what we’re ultimately after is social change. While we work on promoting gender parity both politically and economically we should also follow the example of our baboon cousins and model the way that men should interact with women. This means that more men should take issues of women’s rights seriously so that younger men who look up to them will follow in turn.

Emphasis added. Read the whole thing over at the Intersection.

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