Quarterly for Education and Technology: If baboons ran schools – Cafe Technos – primatologist Robert M. Sapolsky

If baboons ran schools – Cafe Technos – primatologist Robert M. Sapolsky – Interview

Thom Gillespie

… was my working title for this article. It started last summer when my wife, Doris, gave me a copy of A Primate’s Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky. Doris is always giving me books to read. I read few of them because her reading taste is much higher brow than mine is. I never miss Buffy or Angel; I always read the comics after the sports and before world news. Doris reads the Sunday New York Times even if it takes her a week; I skim it in 45 minutes or less. But hey, I was going on a three-week trip to Alaska, and Doris was not happy to be left behind, so in the interest of marital tranquility I said, “Love to read it.” I figured that with luck, three weeks, and two long flights, maybe I’d get halfway through the book before I returned and I could fake it when she asked me if I liked the baboon book. I figured I could say, “Loved it. Did I get any good mail while gone?”

The problem began just after lift-off. I started to read A Primate’s Memoir, and I started to laugh. At first it was just a chuckle, but before we cleared Nebraska I had tears in my eyes, was almost doubled up, and was trying frantically to muffle belly laughs. The flight attendants came over to me three times to see if they could help. They thought I was in pain. And I was, but the pain was not being able to share this amazing book that talked of real science with real life in real situations in the bush, in towns in Africa and in New York City. It was real primatology; some wore clothes and some didn’t. The book I thought I wouldn’t finish in three weeks was actually finished before I landed in Seattle.

Who Is This Guy?

For the past 20 years Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, has been spending about 25 percent of his time in Kenya studying baboons to better understand the neurobiology of stress in human beings. Robert studies baboons because they have obsessions similar to their primate cousins, humans. They worry about their status in society; they worry about how to climb the ladder of baboon society. Some are more successful than others. Once at the top, they worry about who below them are hell-bent on catching up. Some in the middle are quick to duck and cover when things get weird with Shakespearean maneuverings. Basically, armed with a couple of sacks of beans for meals, some darts for tranquilizing, equipment for extracting blood samples and taking blood pressure and cholesterol measurements–and almost ethnographic notations of the baboon troop’s maneuvering–Robert studied the effects of stress in a primate society very similar to the ones found in Palo Alto, California, and at university faculty meetings all across North America.

It also seemed pretty obvious to me that there are a lot of similarities between baboon troops, human gangs, and K-12 education these days: lots of stress and lots of aggression. I was hoping to correspond with Robert via email about these topics, but just as I was about to send my questions to him, I received a notice that he would be speaking at the Butler University science writers series in Indianapolis, a mere hour’s drive from Bloomington. I decided to see Robert in action, and as a gesture of gratitude to my wife for introducing me to his book, I took her along. I’m glad I did. Robert is an exceptional writer, but he may be an even better public speaker. I don’t remember ever having been at a science talk where the speaker got a standing ovation and I was left wondering if they are going to start shouting, “Encore, encore! More!”

The Interview

Do you think there are parallels between human and baboon society?

Definitely. Which is what I keep telling the people who fund my work. We are social primates. We are not baboons. We are quite different from them as far as primates go. But, the common themes are this tremendous combination of competition and cooperation, altruism and sociality–this incredible emphasis on social connectiveness and this ability to generate psychological states out of thin air, which baboons are some of the only ones out there who are smart enough to do the same. The big difference is that they need to be comforted by someone grooming them, and we can be comforted by a letter from someone on the other side of the planet. They can invent stressors built around “Imagine I’m going to bite you in 2 seconds”; and we can invent stressors built around events 20 years in the future. The scales on which we do it are far more dramatic but the underlying primate principles are the same.

I thought it was a joke when they introduced you as studying the biology of religious belief.

I’m actually quite interested in that. The aspect that fascinates me–and I am an utter card-carrying atheist who was once very orthodox–is the very solid literature showing that your health is very much better if you are religious, and not just because you are less likely to smoke, and not just because you get a social community. Religious belief, in and of itself, seems to be extremely protective of health, and that fascinates me.

So, does this religious belief protect a person who is going on a suicide mission and will die shortly?

You have predictability. You have your situation improving by dying. You have attribution. If you can understand that there is a god with a rational mind who cares particularly about you and people like you, you have this whole attributional system to explain and predict why an unexplainable world makes sense. Religion absolutely taps into all the features of psychological stress.

Would you predict that the people in New York City who have strong religious beliefs are having less stress after September 11 than those who do not?

Absolutely. The studies are clear, and atheists have much higher rates of clinical depression, astronomically high rates. It makes perfect sense in many ways.

Do you have researchers in your lab at Stanford researching the biology of religious belief?.

No, that is just one of my pet hobbies. In my lab, my research is oriented toward gene therapy and the nervous system, which in 5 to 10 years will either have worked and turned into clinical trials, which will be out of my hands, or won’t have worked and we’ll probably shut down as a field. My guess is that 10 years from now I am going to be working on the neurobiology of those issues–brain imaging, issues of religious belief, impulsivity, faith–stuff like that, which is not terribly accessible at this point but will be fairly soon.

Do you think there is anything we can learn from baboons today to deal with situations such as September 11th? I mean, how does a baboon deal with a traumatic situation in the troop?

If they are lucky enough to have an individual they are closely affiliated with, they go and sit and groom. It is a very concrete response. If they are female, it is likely to be someone who is a relative: a mother, a sister, a child. If it is a male and they are not in the 25 percent who have a close relationship with a female, they do not have that option. That makes a huge difference. I haven’t done the research, but others have used telemetry devices to measure blood pressure, heart rate, and EKG even in fully ambulatory primates. It is exactly as you would expect. Someone loses a social interaction, a dominance interaction, up goes blood pressure and he walks over to the other side of the enclosure (these are all animals in capture) and he sits and starts to groom someone, and the blood pressure comes back down. Same way in humans.

If baboons had weapons of mass destruction, do you think they would use them on outside groups?

In a second. It would not be organized in a territorial troop way because they are not grouped in organized troops. They are all males who showed up and are not related. They would be more likely to try to use it on somebody in their troop as on somebody in another troop because of grudges.

Chimps have the reverse system, where it is females who change troops at puberty, so males spend all their lives with other males to whom they are related. So you suddenly have this very potent, dangerous situation of adult males who are related to each other and have been cooperating their entire lives. There you would get chimps happily using weapons of mass destruction to eradicate the neighbors. You get something resembling warfare in chimps. You get groups of related chimps controlling their territory, killing males from other groups that they encounter. It is not for nothing that all the warrior societies on earth, all the pastoralist-warrior societies were patri-local. Males stay where they grew up. So, men as adults are surrounded by their brothers and other relatives–that is the backbone of us-them warfare.

As a primatologist, would you say that warfare is part of an adaptive, protective technique or technology?

No, it is not necessarily adaptive. Look at mountain gorillas, who do something fairly awful and unpleasant called competitive infanticide, where males will kill each other’s infants. There is a wonderful, clear, vicious Darwinian logic to this where you wipe out the reproductive success of your competitor and that is good for your genes because relatively you are doing better. This makes sense strategically. This is one variant of war violence, which has a payoff, but there are now only 500 mountain gorillas left on the earth. Amid many of the reasons why they are on the edge of extinction, this is one of the reasons: that infants get killed. In a case like the mountain gorilla it is definitely not adaptive. It is also the case that there are plenty of primates where there is no violence at all. Baboons happen to be extremely violent. There is no pattern that the more violent primates are more closely related to humans. There is no universal of organized warfare in humans, even though most human societies do have organized warfare–but there are exceptions. There is nothing to say that warfare is a universal primate or mammalian behavior.

As a scientist, can you look at humans and see us ever getting past organized warfare?

It certainly is possible, to the extent that if you had a different disciplinary bent, you could construct just as much of a story built around the number of species out there who do slavery. They tend not to be mammals or primates. Slavery is very widespread in social insects. It has also been widespread throughout human history. Now in at least some pockets of Westernized human life, where it was once viewed as absolutely logical and natural and all sorts of cultural conventions such as religion were built around rationalizing slavery, it doesn’t exist any more. It certainly exists in the Sudan, but at least in parts of the earth where slavery was once viewed as natural, inevitable, and universal, it no longer is.

So there might be hope?

There might be hope, but it sure does not look to be on the horizon at the moment.

Are there any lessons on aggression we can take from your studies of baboons and violence in children? If we look at events such as the shooting at Columbine High School, are there any lessons that can be learned from baboons?

It will not work to teach kids to be unaggressive because we do not have a society dominated by Quakers and pacifists. We have a society that loves aggression and rewards it enormously. The key thing is reward in context. I am certainly grateful for the enormous amount of aggression generated by America during World War II. So much of what socialization is about is not learning how much of a behavior to perform but instead learning the appropriate social context for it. When you look at the classic studies of Harry Harlowe’s at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s of raising primates in social isolation, you can see the ways in which they were screwed up as adults. They were not more or less violent than average; they were not more or less sexually active–they were inappropriate in all cases. They aggressed animals they had no business going near. They were terrified of tiny infants. They were attempting to mate with the wrong kind of animals or with inanimate objects. They did not have inappropriate levels of anything; they had inappropriate contexts.

How can teachers create the right context for kids? In Columbine, supposedly the kids couldn’t deal with the hazing of high school.

I don’t see any easy primate lessons with Columbine. I certainly identified with Klebold; the hazing was my experience growing up. It is an appalling world where high school jock-dom and cliques are not only ignored but also officially condoned, because it is much the same people who have wound up running the school systems. No primate lessons at Columbine. It was an abusing situation.

We teach kids it is okay to lie, sometimes. You lie to Grandma when you don’t like the present she gives you. You see your parents lie when they say the meal is wonderful, even if it isn’t. Most of what we teach is not the moral absolute. It is okay to lie; it is okay to be violent; it is okay to kill–in some cases. It would have been nonsense for me to be a pacifist in World War II. It is all about context.

That is what primates get socialized to do. Somewhere in the book I describe an event involving an infant who has been born to one of the lowest ranking females. When she is about a week old, just as she was about to interact with the daughter of the highest ranking female, the low-ranking mother reaches over and drags her back. She had just gotten a lesson at a week of age that this is not someone you walk up to and interact with. If you are going to interact with her, you sit still and you don’t make eye contact, and you hope that the interaction consists of her walking past and ignoring you. In her first week of life she was learning context dependency of having a low rank. If I come back a quarter of a century later, these old ladies will still be behaving in the same way.

But in this situation it was the mother teaching the lesson. In the Columbine situation, do you think it was the parents’ or a teacher’s responsibility to teach the lesson to Klebold?

No, because human society has more layers, more complex peer groups, more routes of socialization than in a nonhuman primate society. They don’t have the equivalent of police, teachers, social workers, of differing peer groups with differing social values; they don’t have the media. Much more complicated with humans.

You said you identified with Klebold. How did you cope with the situation back then?

I ulcerated internally. I did not have good coping mechanisms. I decided that someday I would go live with baboons or some sort of primate. In Huxley’s Brave New World, a very stratified caste system allowed the system to work. Each caste was propagandized to think of themselves as the lucky ones. Rationalization works well in humans. I know someone at Harvard who studies the health consequences of being in a low caste in India. He studies how much the Huxley model protects someone in a low caste from health consequences, and it works. Working with that model also makes you less likely to be revolutionary. Working with that model makes you less likely to be a random Klebold. It is not for nothing that American Southern slave owners taught the slaves turn-the-other-cheek Christianity. It is not for nothing that Islam in the Middle East has the attribution system pointed outward rather than inward.

Is there anything a teacher can do to work with kids dealing with childhood aggression?

Channel it into an appropriate setting. Channel it into an appropriate setting.

People often say that when two kids want to fight, you have to let them fight. Do you think that is true?

We are actually dealing with this issue with our son in his preschool. They are saying, “This is inevitable, and what we do is set it up in a safe, constrained atmosphere with rules for how it happens, for instance with wrestling.” I actually hate it. I don’t know if we are right. We are horrified seeing our angelic child become this “male.” But, who is in charge? What is this bullshit that this is inevitable male behavior? But, if it is happening, you sort of have to constrain it, channel it. In my book I talk about the New Guinea highlanders, who were forcibly westernized into Christianity. One of the things they had to stamp out was the tribal raiding between villages, which accounted for a huge percentage of their mortality. What they did was organize very successful New Guinea highland Olympics where they do spear throwing under controlled circumstances. People do occasionally get injured and even killed, because otherwise it would not have the right saliency to it, but it has been very successful. Villages get bragging rights, just like they used to when they burned and plundered the neighbors.

After 20 years in the field, are you ever talking to another person and you realize that person is behaving like a baboon or another primate?

All the time. When I first became a faculty member at Stanford and I was a totally subordinate faculty member, faculty meetings were amazing to watch in terms of the utter power dominance displayed. Hierarchies, totally primate behavior.

What about with your kids? Do you look at them as little baboon types?

They are two and four. What has surprised me is how little my primatology credentials have prepared me in the slightest for fatherhood. Somewhere around six to eight months of age, when they started picking up pieces of things, the differences between them and other nonhuman primates flooded far more than the similarities. I thought parenting was going to be one big primatology blowout, but mostly I have been stunned by how little the language and symbolic manipulation is in such a different league.

You mentioned that the high school you went to was different from most high schools. Can you describe this school in a little more detail, and why it was perfect for you?

It was a public high school in New York City, an experimental school, called John Dewey High School, based on the educational philosophies of John Dewey. I went to it the second year it was open. It had no grades, no competition; no honor societies, no competitive sports. It was self-paced and had tremendous facilities. Probably just as important as all those things–because it was a new, weirdo experimental school, where there was considerable anxiety as to whether people would be accepted into decent colleges afterward without grades–it was highly self-selective. Smart, eccentric kids who would have moldered in traditional high schools, or loathed the “Ooh me, I know, I know, call on me!” edge of the elite NYC specialized high schools such as Bronx Science or Stuyvesant, went there. It was wonderful for me–I was driven enough to not need grades or any sort of structure, and the flexibility of things that were available was great. For example, in addition to traditional science courses, there was a two-year course in anthropology, a year of microbiology, two years of marine biology. You could take “sabbaticals”–throughout, I worked one day a week in a primate lab. There was no violence whatsoever, not the remotest hint of kids bullying each other, no idiot sports worship. Lots of hippie teachers who found the school to be a refuge from traditional high schools, so they were wildly enthusiastic and motivated. A great place for me.

Do you think this school was “stressful”? Was this good or bad for you?

Stressful only in the sense of “good stress”–an ideal level of stimulation. There was definitely a subset of students who sank there; they couldn’t deal with the freedom and lack of structure and kind of disappeared. So, I think that for them, one could somehow frame it as there being insufficient stress of a certain shaping sort. But that’s a bit of a reinterpretive stretch.

From what you know about schools today that your son might go to, do you think schools are designed to minimize or maximize stress for kids?

I don’t know a ton about this, and there is obviously a great variety of schools. The Columbine High School model seems to be one built around worship of sports, of cliques, of the popular, a tremendous tolerance for victimization–this obviously creates vast amounts of stress for the outliers, but I don’t think there’s the remotest hint that such schools are “designed” to be that way. It seems like a combination of laziness, uncreativity, and [rotten] values.

Palo Alto seems to specialize in schools instead where smarts/achievements are valued, which is a nice change, but where it winds up being a pressure cooker that apparently does some pretty stressful things to the kids. This seems to be the world of the ninth graders developing ulcers worrying about the SATs years hence; it’s immensely competitive, where you can’t escape it, no matter how tacitly the stress is generated. I found Harvard to be a lot like this. So obviously a variant exists there of maximally stressing kids along a certain axis, and what seems to be an outcome of design. Then, we’re seeing various progressive schools, in looking for places for our son. A lot of them seem to be designed to minimize stress and, in the process, to accidentally generate too little stimulation, which makes it seem slightly un-PC and boorish to be excited and driven about something.

Is the stressfulness of a learning environment something that should be taken into consideration when teaching, designing, or evaluating a school?

Obviously yes, in terms of stress making for poorer learning, less pleasure in learning, depression. And the stress could be: (a) because the place is a driven, competitive pressure cooker; (b) because seemingly anything but learning is what is valued; (c) because the environment is not safe, either physically or emotionally; or (d) because the values taught at school, as a representative of mainstream culture, are strongly conflicting with your values at home. (I’m thinking here of the Ebonics war of a few years ago–the issue of what is a kid supposed to make of school where, if they learn things properly there, they can only reach the conclusion that their parents are ignorant and don’t know how to speak English?)

RELATED ARTICLE: The ambiguity of aggression.

Robert M. Sapolsky

The author recalls his trip from Kenya to Uganda in 1979, after Idi Amin’s overthrow by Tanzanian forces.

I had finally felt frightened and disoriented enough that I had to flee, had to get out of that impossible place. I started hitching back east to safe, familiar Kenya again. Despite my near panic to be gone, there was something I very much needed to do, against all logic, I made a detour in the town of Jinja, in order to see the source of the Nile. It is here that Lake Victoria spills over its edge and begins the White Nile. It was here that Burton had dreamt of, that Speke, slipping off on his own, had finally reached, over which one of the great debates of Victorian science raged. I had grown up on all of these men as my heroes, had read Burton’s journals and biographies, had traced their journeys on maps. I wanted to see the point where the Nile began.

It was not hard to find. There was a bridge over it now, a concrete wall below that formed some sort of hydroelectric dam, with a torrent of water bursting through an opening. Oddly, there was even a plaque commemorating Speke’s “discovery” of this spot. Standing at the very center of the bridge, you could see, just below, a staircase coming down the concrete wall, down to a platform right at the water level with a hole in the wall. No doubt related to the workings of this dam. I stood there and looked down, seeing something extraordinary. A soldier had been marched down the stairs, his hands tied behind his back. A rope had been put around his throat and tied to some piece of machinery inside that hole, such that as the river rose, the man had eventually been swept off his feet, so that he had drowned or choked. He was dead, the body bloated and stiff, flowing straight out in the rushing water. I thought, Was he Ugandan or Tanzanian? There was too little uniform left to tell. I thought, If he was with Amin, he deserved it. I thought, But no one deserves to die that way. I thought, But how many civilians did he kill? I thought, But maybe he was just a forced conscript, forced to do it. I thought, Yeah, I know what I think of Nazis who said they were just following orders. I thought, I bet the current is too strong there for the crocs to get to his body. I thought, I wonder if he was alive as the waters rose on him, how did that feel? I thought, I wonder if I can get closer, to see, I must remember every detail, so I can tell people about this. I thought, I want to forget this, I want to get the hell out of here, to be home, to be safe. And I stood there, transfixed, unable to move from that spot.

Decades later, in the neurobiology classes I teach, I always spend some lectures on the physiology of aggression. The hormonal modulation of it, the areas of the brain having some influence over it, the genetic components of it. Somehow, each year, it takes more and more lectures to cover the material. There aren’t a whole lot more facts known than about the neurobiology of schizophrenia or language use or parental behavior, just to name a few of the other topics I cover. But somehow, almost embarrassingly, I spend more and more time talking about aggression. I think each year I lecture longer because of that man with his head tied to the dam and because of how long I stood there looking at him, unable to leave. I think it is because of the ambiguity of aggression. It is the most con fusing emotion to me, and with the defenses of an academician, I clearly believe that if I lecture at it enough, it will give up and go away quietly, its simultaneous attraction and repulsion will stop being so frightening to me. Parental behavior, sexual behavior, those are usually pretty unassailable positives. Schizophrenia, depression, dementia–definitely bad. But aggression. The same motor pattern, the same burst of viscera and neurotransmitters holding razors, and sometimes we are rewarded as with few other behaviors, and sometimes we have been unspeakably harmful. A just war, a nation freed, and a head jammed in the hole in the concrete. I stood watching for hours, mesmerized, as if to see how long it would take for this man to be washed away, bit by bit, into the Nile.

Excerpted from Chapter 7, “Memories of Blood: The East African Wars,” in A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life among the Baboons, by Robert M. Sapolsky; copyright [c] 2001 by Robert M. Sapolsky. Reprinted by arrangement with Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.

Thom Gillespie, Maitre d’Igital of the Cafe TECHNOS (www.technos.net/cafe), is also a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington. He developed the prize-winning Masters in Immersive Mediated Environments program at IUB.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Agency for Instructional Technology

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group