Can the Chain Still Hold You?

Robert Sapolsky:

Ba­boons… liter­ally have been the text­book ex­am­ple of a highly ag­gres­sive, male-dom­i­nated, hi­er­ar­chi­cal so­ciety. Be­cause these an­i­mals hunt, be­cause they live in these ag­gres­sive troupes on the Sa­van­nah… they have a con­stant baseline level of ag­gres­sion which in­evitably spills over into their so­cial lives.

Scien­tists have never ob­served a ba­boon troupe that wasn’t highly ag­gres­sive, and they have com­pel­ling rea­sons to think this is sim­ply ba­boon na­ture, writ­ten into their genes. Inescapable.

Or at least, that was true un­til the 1980s, when Kenya ex­pe­rienced a tourism boom.

Sapolsky was a grad stu­dent, study­ing his first ba­boon troupe. A new tourist lodge was built at the edge of the for­est where his ba­boons lived. The own­ers of the lodge dug a hole be­hind the lodge and dumped their trash there ev­ery morn­ing, af­ter which the males of sev­eral ba­boon troupes — in­clud­ing Sapolsky’s — would fight over this pun­gent bounty.

Be­fore too long, some­one no­ticed the ba­boons didn’t look too good. It turned out they had eaten some in­fected meat and de­vel­oped tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, which kills ba­boons in weeks. Their hands rot­ted away, so they hob­bled around on their elbows. Half the males in Sapolsky’s troupe died.

This had a sur­pris­ing effect. There was now al­most no vi­o­lence in the troupe. Males of­ten re­cip­ro­cated when fe­males groomed them, and males even groomed other males. To a ba­boo­nol­o­gist, this was like watch­ing Mike Tyson sud­denly stop swing­ing in a heavy­weight fight to start nuz­zling Evan­der Holyfield. It never hap­pened.

This was in­ter­est­ing, but Sapolsky moved to the other side of the park and be­gan study­ing other ba­boons. His first troupe was “sci­en­tifi­cally ru­ined” by such a non-nat­u­ral event. But re­ally, he was just heart­bro­ken. He never vis­ited.

Six years later, Sapolsky wanted to show his girlfriend where he had stud­ied his first troupe, and found that they were still there, and still sur­pris­ingly vi­o­lence-free. This one troupe had ap­par­ently been so trans­formed by their un­usual ex­pe­rience — and the con­tinued availa­bil­ity of easy food — that they were now ba­si­cally non-vi­o­lent.

And then it hit him.

Only one of the males now in the troupe had been through the event. All the rest were new, and hadn’t been raised in the tribe. The new males had come from the vi­o­lent, dog-eat-dog world of nor­mal ba­boon-land. But in­stead of com­ing into the new troupe and rough­ing ev­ery­body up as they always did, the new males had learned, “We don’t do stuff like that here.” They had un­learned their child­hood cul­ture and adapted to the new norms of the first ba­boon paci­fists.

As it turned out, vi­o­lence wasn’t an un­chang­ing part of ba­boon na­ture. In fact it changed rather quickly, when the right causal fac­tor flipped, and — for this troupe and the new males com­ing in — it has stayed changed to this day.

Some­how, the vi­o­lence had been largely cir­cum­stan­tial. It was just that the cir­cum­stances had always been the same.

Un­til they weren’t.

We still don’t know how much ba­boon vi­o­lence to at­tribute to na­ture vs. nur­ture, or ex­actly how this change hap­pened. But it’s worth not­ing that changes like this can and do hap­pen pretty of­ten.

Slav­ery was ubiquitous for mil­len­nia. Un­til it was out­lawed in ev­ery coun­try on Earth.

Hu­mans had never left the Earth. Un­til we achieved the first manned or­bit and the first manned moon land­ing in a sin­gle decade.

Smal­lpox oc­ca­sion­ally dec­i­mated hu­man pop­u­la­tions for thou­sands of years. Un­til it was erad­i­cated.

The hu­man species was always too weak to ren­der it­self ex­tinct. Un­til we dis­cov­ered the nu­clear chain re­ac­tion and man­u­fac­tured thou­sands of atomic bombs.

Reli­gion had a grip on 99.5% or more of hu­man­ity un­til 1900, and then the rate of re­li­gious ad­her­ence plum­meted to 85% by the end of the cen­tury. Whole na­tions be­came mostly athe­is­tic, largely be­cause for the first time the state pro­vided peo­ple some ba­sic sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity. (Some na­tions be­came athe­is­tic be­cause of athe­is­tic dic­ta­tors, oth­ers be­cause they pro­vided se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity to their cit­i­zens.)

I would never have imag­ined I could have the kinds of con­ver­sa­tions I now reg­u­larly have at the Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute, where peo­ple change their de­grees of be­lief sev­eral times in a sin­gle con­ver­sa­tion as new ev­i­dence and ar­gu­ment is pre­sented, where ev­ery­one at the table knows and ap­plies a broad and deep sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing, where peo­ple dis­agree strongly and say harsh-sound­ing things (due to Crocker’s rules) but end up com­ing to agree­ment af­ter 10 min­utes of ar­gu­ment and carry on as if this is friend­ship and busi­ness as usual — be­cause it is.

But then, never be­fore has hu­man­ity had the com­bined benefits of an over­whelming case for one cor­rect prob­a­bil­ity the­ory, a sys­tem­atic un­der­stand­ing of hu­man bi­ases and how they work, free ac­cess to most sci­en­tific knowl­edge, and a large com­mu­nity of peo­ple ded­i­cated to the daily prac­tice of CogSci-in­formed ra­tio­nal­ity ex­er­cises and to helping each other im­prove.

This is part of what gives me a sense that more is pos­si­ble. Com­pared to situ­a­tional effects, we tend to over­es­ti­mate the effects of last­ing dis­po­si­tions on peo­ple’s be­hav­ior — the fun­da­men­tal at­tri­bu­tion er­ror. But I, for one, was only taught to watch out for this er­ror in ex­plain­ing the be­hav­ior of in­di­vi­d­ual hu­mans, even though the bias also ap­pears when ex­plain­ing the be­hav­ior of hu­mans as a species. I sus­pect this is partly due to the com­mon mi­s­un­der­stand­ing that her­i­ta­bil­ity mea­sures the de­gree to which a trait is due to ge­netic fac­tors. Another rea­son may be that for ob­vi­ous rea­sons sci­en­tists rarely try very hard to mea­sure the effects of ex­pos­ing hu­man sub­jects to rad­i­cally differ­ent en­vi­ron­ments like an ar­tifi­cial prison or to­tal hu­man iso­la­tion.

When tam­ing a baby elephant, its trainer will chain one of its legs to a post. When the elephant tries to run away, the chain and the post are strong enough to keep it in place. But when the elephant grows up, it is strong enough to break the chain or up­root the post. Yet the owner can still se­cure the elephant with the same chain and post, be­cause the elephant has been con­di­tioned to be­lieve it can­not break free. It feels the tug of the chain and gives up — a kind of learned hel­pless­ness. The elephant acts as if it thinks the chain’s limit­ing power is in­trin­sic to na­ture rather than de­pen­dent on a causal fac­tor that held for years but holds no longer.

Much has changed in the past few decades, and much will change in the com­ing years. Some­times it’s good to check if the chain can still hold you. Do not be tamed by the tug of his­tory. Maybe with a few new tools and tech­niques you can just get up and walk away — to a place you’ve never seen be­fore.