what baboons teach us about culture

Ready for a nerd post? Me too! It’s actually going to be a post about what it means to perform your gender, from a biological perspective.

Another of my media consumption bits lately was the doco National Geographic: Stress: Portrait of a Killer.

One of the things we learn is about a troupe of baboons. It gets described starting at 2:30 in the clip below:

Typical baboon troops are intensely hierarchical and patriarchal, competitive to the point of Machiavellian deceit and violence.


In this one troupe, the aggressive alpha males were killed by infectious disease, leaving more females than males and the males who were left were non-dominant.

Result? A total revolution in the culture of the troupe. Low aggression, high social affiliation. New adolescent males joining the troupe would bring their learned, typical baboon culture, but within about 6 months they would unlearn the “jerkiness” of typical baboon culture and learn this new kinder, gentler baboon culture.

The dominant alpha jerks got killed off, and the troupe turned into a bunch of gentle, social baboons who didn’t tolerate jerkiness.

Now, when this happened, the standard wisdom was that jerks were what baboon are, naturally and innately.

What this teaches us is that the overall culture of a group of these primates is NOT innate in any straightforward sense. They will not always, under all circumstances organize themselves in a particular way. Where there is competition, competition will grow. Where there is collaboration, competition will not be tolerated.

What I want this to illustrate about humans is the idea that the roles we claim under the label “gender” are byproducts of who-knows-how-many variables related to resource abundance, sex ratios, fertility, and population density. They are not “innate” in the straightforward sense of being able to say that “men are this” or “women are that.” We can only say that in the particular given context in which behavior is observed are measured, people in one category behave in a particular, predictable way. The innate characteristics of humans will respond adaptively to the environment.

Maybe there are some things that are innate – for example, I’d buy an argument that the rules in our nervous systems that respond the environment and shape these adaptive behaviors are innate; but their behavioral phenotypes are so variable and complex that identifying the “trait” that underlies the diversity will be very difficult.

This is a terribly complex idea, this notion of socioenvironmental context shaping not just an individual’s behavior but an entire culture.

Hey, favor? Could someone say this point back to me so I know if I’ve expressed it clearly?

Word up.