A study published in the American Journal of Primatology, by renowned neurobiologist and primatologist, Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, has shown that levels of intra-group aggression exhibited by troupes of baboons on the Serengeti Plains diminishes significantly during periods of drought. The reasons for this moderation of behaviour are unclear but it may simply be as a direct consequence of the ecological duress placed upon the baboons. According to Professor Sapolsky:

Normally, in rich ecosystems like the Serengeti, baboons need forage only a few hours a day. Part of what endears baboons to primatologists is that this leaves them about nine hours daily to devote to trysting and jousting and backbiting. In 1984 there was a devastating drought in East Africa. Among baboons, while there was still sufficient food, it took every waking moment to get enough calories; aggression decreased.”

Such observations have clear implications for the human race as it faces the escalating challenges posed by climate change. As drought becomes the norm for many parts of the world, mankind will become ever more pre-occupied with the need to maintain adequate levels of sustenance. The attendant demand for unprecedented levels of industrious effort and cooperation will serve as a constructive distraction for those who would otherwise be tempted to engage in internecine conflict. As Professor Sapolsky stated, “Why rustle someone else’s cows when you cannot even feed your own?”

The above article never appeared in the mainstream media. Instead, it fell to little-old moi, an obscure merchant of doubt, backed only by the billions supplied by the Koch brothers, to put pen to paper so that I might bring the good news to a wider audience. And rest assured, this is not a spoof. Professor Sapolsky does exist. He is a famous primatologist, and he did publish his findings regarding decreased baboon aggression in the American Journal of Primatology (back in 1986, if you must know). The quotes in the above article are genuine (you will find them on page 303 of his book, ‘Behave – The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst’).

But here’s the thing: When it came to spiders developing aggressive traits in response to ecological duress (see The Revenge of Incy Wincy), the internet was soon full of half-baked reports serving to warn of the ‘obvious implications’ for mankind. The logic was identical to that used in my baboon article: The attribution of extreme weather events to global warming is uncritically accepted, and anything observed in the behaviour of a non-human species may be safely inferred to apply to mankind. And yet, the conclusion drawn was in diametric opposition.

So who is right? Do the observations of non-human species suggest that the human race will become more aggressive or less aggressive in response to climate change? Of course, the answer is neither. Any attempt to draw conclusions, whether it be from spiders or baboons, would be utter nonsense. As I hope I have just demonstrated, I am as capable of writing such nonsense as the next person. The only difference is that I did so knowingly to make a point.


  1. The only clear correlation is that the more deeply one believes in the catastrophist ideology, the less one thinks in a rational critical fashion.


  2. John. Interesting but… After reading your post I more or less agreed with your take on it. But then the remnants of my scientific scepticism took hold. Suppose the facts were different? Suppose that during times of relative food scarcity, baboons – a highly social and inventive animal (watch them destroy car fittings) – might become even more clannish and, as a group increase its attacks on neighbouring weaker groups. In fact I’m fairly sure I saw Attenborough show us warfare between Abyssinian baboon groups. Certainly chimpanzees engage in warfare.
    So it doesn’t follow that increased hardship in humans should lead to increased or decreased aggression based upon what baboons, chimpanzees or even lemurs do. I very much doubt that we can learn anything about ourselves based upon what invertebrates do (although a recent TV programme upon living with an octopus was fascinating). On the other hand, it is generally accepted that some primates are so close to us that we share similar behaviours and perhaps even thoughts (but I hope not too many with baboons.


  3. Alan,

    “After reading your post I more or less agreed with your take on it. But then the remnants of my scientific scepticism took hold.”

    Actually, I don’t have a take on it. The interpretation of the cause behind the baboons’ behaviour is entirely that of Professor Sapolsky. I am faithfully recounting it, before adding a global warming spin in the time-honoured journalistic fashion. My intention was to parody the spider research and demonstrate how a full range of conclusions can be supported by judicious choice of species and circumstance – which, kinda makes the whole enterprise a nonsense.

    As for inter-group violence, I don’t think Sapolsky was observing inter-group behaviour, so I really can’t tell you what he would think of your speculations. However, further down the page he did write:

    “So ecological duress can increase or decrease aggression. This raises the key issue of what global warming will do to our best and worst behaviours. There will definitely be some upsides. Some regions will have longer growing seasons, increasing the food supply and reducing tensions. Some people will eschew conflict, being preoccupied with saving their homes from the encroaching oceans or growing pineapples in the Arctic.”

    He then goes on to assert that the consensus view is that, on balance, greater levels of aggression can be expected in the face of climate change.


  4. John. My take upon your take was that I thought you were demonstrating the utter stupidity of using animal analogues to predict human responses to climate change. My point is that you can chose your animal analogue to demonstrate whatever you want it to. Using spiders was rank stupidity (or perhaps a desperate attempt to justify additional spidy research).
    I don’t see the point of using animal analogues at all (even using primates). We may not have examples of modern human societies reacting to climate change, but we sure do to food shortages as a result of land overuse, population explosion or disease. But then, different societies behave differently – compare Rwanda and Ireland. Once again you could chose your human example to demonstrate whatever slant you want. The only conclusion I would support is that different human societies will react very differently, as will different individuals.


  5. Alan,

    “My point is that you can chose your animal analogue to demonstrate whatever you want it to.”

    In which case, I believe we are making the same point, and if we were at any purpose at all, it was a crossed one. As you say, one has to look to human history to gain any insight; one is on dodgy ground looking to natural history, particularly if one resorts to invertebrates.


  6. Beth,

    Sapolsky’s book has a number of themes that run through the entirety of its 600 plus pages. One of the most important is that there is always a complex interplay between cognitive and affective neurology – it’s never a case of relying solely upon one or the other. Either way, the moralising and deliberative components of the psyche do not require a separated seat of consciousness to exercise executive control, i.e. there is no homunculus directing the cognitive and affective processing. Rather, the consciousness is an emergent epiphenomenon that, amongst other things, enables the illusion of free will. And yet, the Guardian reviewer criticises Sapolsky for failing to emphasise anywhere within the 600 odd pages the primary role played by consciousness in facilitating free will. Instead, Sapolsky is dismissed as a determinist who has somehow missed the point. Worse still, although the deterministic theme of the book is declared pretty much on page one, and maintained throughout, the reviewer seems to make it all the way to page 650 before the penny drops.

    I am now going to have to decide whether the opinions of a world renowned neurologist should be respected or those of a Guardian book reviewer with no declared expertise on the subject. Leave that one with me for a while and I’ll get back to you.


  7. Hunterson7 what an interesting set of observations. But is this a case of primate specieism, because which animal is on the route to domesticating which? [Our dogs have thoroughly domesticated us].


  8. Alan,
    A recent movie speculated about the origin of the human-dog relationship. The tagline question was,
    “Who saved who?”
    Baboons learning to partner with dogs raises that question, as well as puts our alleged special relationship to dogs into question.


  9. Hunterson7. There was a time when I read or viewed everything I could about human-dog relationships. I have had one or two pet dogs all my adult life and wouldn’t be without their companionship. In fact I realized that so perfect a fit is the link between our species that I find it difficult, even as a long-term atheist, to fully discount the hand of a superior being in conceiving and forging that link. Consider the range and complexity of the ways dogs help humans, and the utter devotion that dogs can display (even when mistreated).
    I am particularly impressed by the work of the russians who have, by selectively breeding, produced dog-like animals from wolves. Tameness is accompanied by physical changes that progressively make the puppies more doglike and appealing. So for me there is no question that humans domesticated wolves by selective breeding. It is fascinating, however, to speculate that in domesticating and creating dogs, we humans may have also been changed (and I wager for the better).


  10. John,
    Look forward to your forthcoming review. Sapolsky v Guardian
    I’m reading Damasio’s ‘Descartes Error’ at the moment, re the
    role of emotion in rational thinking.


  11. levels of intra-group aggression exhibited by troupes of baboons on the Serengeti Plains diminishes significantly during periods of drought.

    Expending energy on physical aggression would make them perspire more and increase their thirst. Not a good path to be on in a drought with no bottled or tap water to turn to.


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