Would Baboons Like You?

Thursday nights are “Tamrah’s Pick” of what to do after dinner.    I really look forward to my nights, because its the only time the male personages in my house will sit through a chick-flick or documentary…


Last night, we watched National Geographic’s “Stress: Portrait of a Killer” (2008).   Not as much of a downer as you might think.  Yes, they cover what chronic stress does to your body.   And they highlight the main cause of stress in populations.

But they also tell you what fixes and repairs the damage done.

Though they covered many studies, much of the program focused on the work of  Robert Sapolsky and Sir Michael Morat.

Want to guess who the test subjects of their studies were?

Baboons and British Civil Servants.



Baboons first – Mr. Sapolsky has spent 30+ years studying baboon populations in Kenya.   Here’s the highlights:

  • Baboons spend approximately 3 hours a day foraging/eating.
  • The other 9 hours, they fill with picking on each other (I suspect because they don’t have Xboxes, TV or an Iphone to keep them entertained.)
  • Baboon society is of strict hierarchy – Alpha males pick on subordinates (usually females and non-alpha males), who in turn kick, chase, taunt those below them (teenagers and children)
  • Thousands of blood tests over the years have shown – If you’re near the top – Low Stress and better health.    Bottom?   Oober Stress and attendant stress-related health disorders

The baboons all eat the same diet.   They all have the same health care plan.   To date, none of the baboons have been observed drinking beer, smoking cigs, driving a classy car or showing off their designer jeans to those in the clan who can’t afford them.

(The levels of chronic stress in the “low-class” baboon population tells me they probably would smoke and drink, if only they had access to such things…And I bet the alpha-males would just love a red sports car…)

Those at the lower rungs of the social scale exhibit many chronic ailments that in the human world are associated with Poverty, Malnutrition, etc., etc.


While Mr. Sapolsky is learning how aggressive, underhanded and backstabbing baboons are, Sir Marmot is half a world away wondering if the strict hierarchy of the British Civil Service produces the same kind of health problems as observed in the baboons.

The answer is Yes.

  • The lower down the hierarchy, the less autonomy and control, the higher the stress and the bigger number of sick days.
  • The higher up the subject was, more job satisfaction, lower stress and better health

Although wages were not the same, all civil servants have access to the same healthcare.   They all work in the same physical environment.   But those at the bottom suffered from more health problems than those at the top, which, in turn, kept them at the bottom (apparently, poor job performance does not result in promotion at Whitehall…)


What’s the good news?   The most fascinating portion of the program was the following:

A few years back, one observed colony of baboons took to dining at a local dump place.   Turns out, some of the dumped meat was contaminated with tuberculosis.    A large portion of the group died.

Want to guess which ones didn’t make it?

Yup.  The aggressive alpha males.  They all died.   The females who were left (who previously preferred to spend their days grooming and engaging in positive social interaction, which by the way has been scientifically proven to repair  vital parts of your working parts and boost your immune system) comprised nearly two-thirds of the remaining population.

The surviving males were, as Mr. Sapolsky joked,

“In scientific terms…they were the ‘good guys’.”

He was amazed to note that over the next 10 years, this clan not only survived, it thrived.

In the baboon world, if you’re male, then part of becoming an adult means hitting the road and finding another group to join.   Seems aggressive baboons who encountered this clan had a serious adjustment phase (usually about 6 months.)

Coming into this clan with aggression, taunting, kicking and in general, exhibiting “good” alpha male qualities did not result in the usual rewards.

The program didn’t say so, but I suspect the new males spent the first 5 months or so yelling,

“But this is how it’s done.   It’s always been this way!  Survival of the fittest!  You touchy-feelies need to get with the program!”

The clan liked their new way of doing things.  They knew it worked.   Daily life was so much better.   Their reply?

“Either be nice and participate in mutual grooming and bonding activities, or hit the road, Jack.”


I’ve pondered for many years why we humans seem bent on having hierarchies/groups (and the freedom to cause misery for those below us or not of part of “our crowd”)

– seems like we don’t know how to organize ourselves any other way.

No matter how much we hate being at the bottom, or left out,  once we have achieved a higher level, or acceptance into a community, our mindset has changed:

“Hey, I had to work my way up – I paid my dues.  Now I can enjoy my success.   If those whiners at the bottom would just apply themselves…”

Okay – but there’s one group of baboons that won’t have us, unless we change our perspective….

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