Baboon metaphysics

I’ve just finished reading and enjoying Baboon Metaphysics, by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth. 

Yup, that’s a baboon. I didn’t really know what they looked like either, before I read the book.

This book is several things. It’s in part a description of their work studying baboons (including a fascinating series of experiments), part a broader survey of current research and conclusions about what baboons are and aren’t capable of; and then, partially, a linking of those conclusions to a broader set of questions about the evolutionary tree, and where human abilities like social intelligence, language, and tool use came from. 

Their notes on studying the baboons are a fascinating introduction to a very different kind of research. They essentially followed a single troop of baboons (as far as I know that’s the right collective noun – please let me know if you find something better) for about fourteen years, building on many years of research previously done with the group. They describe measuring chemical levels in fetal samples as a way of assessing stress, as well as the challenges in operating out of a remote site in a national park. One of my favourite passages was their description of the difficulty in getting supplies in to camp, and the dangers inherent in using a boat during flood season, including hippos that have “one emotional state-anger-and no faculty of reason.” 

There’s an extensive section of the book that goes into their observations of baboon society, some of the power structures involved, and their experiments with playing back recordings. I won’t go into any more detail on this, except to say that they make the experiments reasonably accessible (more so than the average psychology paper, certainly), and of linking them back to the key research questions. 

Their observations and experiments then set them up to make a set of conclusions about baboons’ cognitive capabilities. Specifically, that baboons maintain a complex and detailed social map that changes rapidly with new developments (changes in social rank, and so on), and can identify the noises made by other baboons as fitting into different categories, and belonging to different speakers. They connect this new information with what they already know (their existing social map), and are surprised by changes (or fake recordings the experimenters have set up). 

But Cheney and Seyfarth conclude that baboons don’t have a fully developed theory of mind – and again, they have the experimental results to argue that conclusion. One of the more tragic examples they present is mothers who seem to experience stress and grief on the loss of a child (some baboon’s will carry a child’s corpse in their mouths for days after it dies), but sometimes seem unable to grasp risks a child may experience, which will result in its death – particularly, when it comes to water crossings, mothers may not wait for their children. “She behaves as if she assumes that if she can make the water crossing, everyone can make the water crossing”, with tragic results:

“There have been several instances when young juveniles have failed to make the crossing, either because a predator killed them after the rest of the group had left, or because they drowned as they struggled to make the long crossing on their own.”

Finally, having argued that baboons have some kind of social intelligence, but not a full theory of mind, they go on to link this to a broader set of questions about intelligence, belief, and ideas. This is a set of issues they’ve introduced at the start of the book, with an excellent discussion of some metaphysical debates that were taking place when Darwin was writing, along with Darwin’s own (private) note that He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

They then argue that social intelligence in its rudimentary form preceded a more complex theory of mind, which turn enabled language and tool use. I like their argument because I think that it’s a good effort in linking evolutionary pressures to a lot of things that are unique about humans. I’m reminded of a paper I came across a while ago (Ecological dominance, social competition and coalitionary arms races – and no, I don’t think coalitionary is a word either), which made what seemed to me a very plausible argument that if you’re looking for evolutionary pressures, after a certain point you don’t have to go outside an individual’s social group to look for evolutionary pressures. 

So, all in all, if you find evolutionary theory, psychology or baboons interesting, I’d recommend this one – it’s intelligent and accessible.




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