Primate Peace
December 22, 2005 9:06 PM   Subscribe

A Natural History of Peace. Humans like to think that they are unique, but the study of other primates has called into question the exceptionalism of our species. So what does primatology have to say about war and peace? Contrary to what was believed just a few decades ago, humans are not "killer apes" destined for violent conflict, but can make their own history.
posted by semmi (13 comments total)
What distinguishes us from the beasts after all, eh? Language? Compassion? Even the attributes to which we we might claim can't be attributed to our whole clan. Thanks for the post.
posted by kinch23 at 9:18 PM on December 22, 2005

Humans are not exceptional but we can make our own history? Can (other) animals make their own history? The author cites an example of a modified-behavior baboon troop but it's not entirely clear that happenstance and environment aren't the causes. In other words not a case of the baboons chosing to 'make' their own history.

The author indicates there are 'peaceful' and 'violent' species of primates. (Nice bonobos and nasty chimps). Whereas humans are able to form both sorts of societies. We are capable of studying and fully understanding either model and making a choice.

A good case is made however for calling the nature / nuture debate 'silly' in that it attempts to ascribe behavior to either one or the other in isolation.
posted by scheptech at 11:31 PM on December 22, 2005

scheptech, I'd say that it's more than "a good case" -- I'd say it's pretty much self-evident.

As for "peaceful bonobos": They're still big, strong, fierce predators who'll (literally) bite your ankles off if you cross them. They just play a little better with others, is all.
posted by lodurr at 4:00 AM on December 23, 2005

I find it interesting that in two of the "peaceful" examples listed, sex seemed to play a role. Bonobos, everybody knows about the oversexed bonobos. But in the example of the violent turned peaceful baboons, newcomers were sexed up a lot sooner than in traditional baboon troops.

Perhaps the answer to a peaceful existance is more sex?
posted by [insert clever name here] at 5:37 AM on December 23, 2005

Maybe Homo sapiens canadiens has much to teach us after all.
posted by trondant at 6:42 AM on December 23, 2005

What distinguishes us from the beasts after all, eh?

We are the only beast that explicitly claims it is not a beast.

Also some good related discussion here.
posted by soyjoy at 7:18 AM on December 23, 2005

soyjoy: ... the only beast that explicitly claims...
...which is another way of saying that we're the only beast we know of that has linguistically-focused culture (i.e., that can make claims about itself).

Personally, I find the continual erosion of the perceived boundary conditions between man and beast to be utterly fascinating. The less we conceive of ourselves as categorically different from other animals, the more seriously we can take our role in the here-and-now (and generations-to-come) world.
posted by lodurr at 7:46 AM on December 23, 2005

Also related, in a rather offbeat way.
posted by soyjoy at 8:21 AM on December 23, 2005

Ape must never kill ape.

Unless Ape suspects ape of secretly harboring Bananas of Mass Destruction.
posted by tkchrist at 11:45 AM on December 23, 2005

I double posted this, silly me. I was trying to make a comment before it got deleted, but failed in that respect too. So I'll post it here...

Dang. I just sort of assumed it wasn't posted before since it's from the January/February 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs. How early do the publish that journal? Oh well. In the first post, [insert clever name here] makes a point that I too thought was interesting. It seems that apes are most peaceful when the are able to eliminate drama and just have sex with whomever. If only, if only.
posted by panoptican at 10:45 AM on January 14, 2006

Humbug. I just lost a comment I was trying to make to the duplicate post. I don't feel like recomposing the whole thing again, so I'll shorten:

Robert M. Sapolsky says: "Other primates display "semanticity" (the use of symbols to refer to objects and actions) in their communication in ways that would impress any linguist. And experiments have shown other primates to possess a "theory of mind," that is, the ability to recognize that different individuals can have different thoughts and knowledge."

These are two things I did not know. In fact I was under the impression that the latest research had shown the opposite of the second claim in the case of orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas. So I'm very curious to read about these new studies. Does anyone have any links to articles about this research?

Now that the story is off the main page, no one will likely read this comment, and I have less hope for a friendly hyperlink.

I do wish that journalists would give bibliographies to cite their claims, sometimes becaue I doubt them, but often (as in this case) because I just want to read more.
posted by ErWenn at 10:51 AM on January 14, 2006

ErWenn, I think this might be a good start if you don't mind going to the library. I'm pretty sure that Spolsky's article in Foregin Affaris draws from actual studies he did. Specifically, A Primates Memoir looks very promising.
posted by panoptican at 1:21 PM on January 16, 2006

It would be even better, I suppose, if I correctly hyperlinked it.
posted by panoptican at 1:22 PM on January 16, 2006

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