Biology, Primatology

Matrilineal Baboons: Maternal Lessons from Distant Cousins

baboon animal mother

“He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

—Charles Darwin, 1838

Scientists have long recognized the value of studying some our closest genetic cousins, the baboon animal mother, in gaining information to better understand human behavior. However, few have valued it highly enough to live among them, as scientist and author Robert Sapolsky did every summer for twenty years from the 1970s through the 1990s. The resulting book, A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons contains as much about human behavior in the wild as it does of the behavior of baboons.

According to a review in the New York Times, his observations led him to challenge the view that social dominance was achieved through a combination of high testosterone levels and aggressive behavior. Instead, he discovered that the lowest ranking males were those with the highest levels of testosterone as well as stress. Just as in humans, stress results in a higher likelihood of disease. The males with the lowest stress hormone levels, including the most dominant ones, rather than engaging in frequent aggression, instead engaged more often in cooperative social behaviors such as grooming and other positive interactions.

The Role of the Baboon Animal Mother in Social Hierarchy

The baboon animal mother plays an important role in the social structure of baboon troops, which usually consist of up to 150 members. Baboon families are matrilineal, most troops having approximately nine families. It is the females who create a stable linear hierarchy that can remain in place for generations, while the dominance hierarchy of the males changes frequently. The changes in male hierarchy depend on a large degree to alliances and bonds formed with females.

Matrilineal families within a troop can become competitive, and both short-term and long-term male-female friendships between members of separate families helps reduce conflict. Such long-term friendships also often result in cooperative child rearing practices.

A review of the book points out that the author persevered with his long-term project despite a violent coup attempt in Kenya in 1982, a human attempt at changing the dominance structure of their own society. Sadly, most of the baboons in the troop in which he had come to be accepted as a low-ranking male died from an epidemic of bovine tuberculosis. His important field work and subsequent books about the effects of stress earned many awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship genius grant, the Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and the Klingenstein Fellowship in Neuroscience.

A Female Perspective on the Social Role of the Baboon Animal Mother

Biology professor Dorothy Cheney‘s book, Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of the Social Mind, contains a vast storehouse of information about baboon animal mother behaviors and perhaps the origins of those of human mothers. One of the most relevant areas of her research is that of competition versus cooperation. Her research revealed that natural selection favored those that were most capable of making decisions regarding when and with whom to compete and when to cooperate.

In an excerpt of the book, readers learn that baboons belong to the genus Papio, and that they are less closely related to humans than other primates, such as chimpanzees. However, the author believes that there are a number of reasons that studying their behavior is relevant to better understanding human behavior. One reason is that their social structures are much larger than those of chimpanzees. Individual baboons belonging to a troop of 100 or more members must learn to create and negotiate a relatively complex social network, much like humans. This requires them to develop a sophisticated set of social skills that includes non-relatives as well as relatives.

Like human society, many of their relationships are simultaneously competitive and cooperative. Cooperative efforts are required to evade predators and defend group resources. Competitive efforts are required to ensure that each group of allies receives an adequate share of group resources. Those resources are dependent upon knowledge of the ecological environment. Studying baboons in the wild, as opposed to those in captivity, provides the opportunity to observe learned behaviors in their natural evolutionary context, and how those behaviors affect reproductive opportunities and ultimately, survival.

One of the reasons that the role of the baboon animal mother is so important is that troops contain more females than males. This disparity in numbers also encourages baboons to form mating bonds and friendships based not just on individual need, but the needs of the group as a whole. Cheney’s research methods and experiments have been lauded as innovative. For example, her research revealed four distinct types of verbal communication or “barks” in response to various environmental stimuli.

While scientific research methods can seem clinically methodical, in the case of baboons, they revealed many very human similarities between the baboon animal mother and the human mother. Creating and maintaining meaningful social connections is vitally important for survival, dealing with the stresses and difficulties of everyday life, and making it enjoyable.

baboon animal mother
Female Monkey Holding Its Baby, Middle Kingdom, ca. 1981–1802bc, Egypt, Amethyst
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