Peace Among Primates (Part 3)

A few days ago we pub­lished the first and sec­ond install­ments of this Peace Among Pri­mates series, by neu­ro­sci­en­tist Robert Sapol­sky. Today we pub­lish the third and final one.

Peace Among Pri­mates (Part 3)

Any­one who says peace is not part of human nature knows too lit­tle about pri­mates, includ­ing ourselves.

–By Robert M. Sapolsky

Nat­ur­al born killers?

Are there any lessons to be learned here that can be applied to human-on-human vio­lence apart, that is, from the pos­si­ble desir­abil­i­ty of giv­ing fatal cas­es of tuber­cu­lo­sis to aggres­sive peo­ple? Can human behav­ior be as mal­leable and as peace­ful as For­est Troops?

Any bio­log­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist opin­ing about human behav­ior is required by long-estab­lished tra­di­tion to note that for 99 per­cent of human his­to­ry, humans lived in small, sta­ble bands of relat­ed hunter-gath­er­ers. Game the­o­rists have shown that a small, cohe­sive group is the per­fect set­ting for the emer­gence of coop­er­a­tion: The iden­ti­ties of the oth­er par­tic­i­pants are known, there are oppor­tu­ni­ties to play games togeth­er repeat­ed­ly (and thus the abil­i­ty to pun­ish cheaters), and there is open-book play (play­ers can acquire rep­u­ta­tions). And so, those hunter-gath­er­er bands were high­ly egal­i­tar­i­an. Empir­i­cal and exper­i­men­tal data have also shown the coop­er­a­tive advan­tages of small groups at the oppo­site human extreme, name­ly in the cor­po­rate world.

But the lack of vio­lence with­in small groups can come at a heavy price. Small homoge­nous groups with shared val­ues can be a night­mare of con­for­mi­ty. They can also be dan­ger­ous for out­siders. Uncon­scious­ly emu­lat­ing the mur­der­ous bor­der patrols of close­ly relat­ed male chimps, mil­i­taries through­out his­to­ry have sought to form small, sta­ble units; incul­cate them with rit­u­als of pseudokin­ship; and there­by pro­duce effi­cient, coop­er­a­tive killing machines.

Is it pos­si­ble to achieve the coop­er­a­tive advan­tages of a small group with­out hav­ing the group reflex­ive­ly view out­siders as the Oth­er? One often encoun­ters pes­simism in response to this ques­tion, based on the notion that humans, as pri­mates, are hard-wired for xeno­pho­bia. Some brain-imag­ing stud­ies have appeared to sup­port this view in a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­cour­ag­ing way. There is a struc­ture deep inside the brain called the amyg­dala, which plays a key role in fear and aggres­sion, and exper­i­ments have shown that when sub­jects are pre­sent­ed with a face of some­one from a dif­fer­ent race, the amyg­dala gets meta­bol­i­cal­ly active aroused, alert, ready for action. This hap­pens even when the face is pre­sent­ed sub­lim­i­nal­ly, which is to say, so rapid­ly that the sub­ject does not con­scious­ly see it.

More recent stud­ies, how­ev­er, should mit­i­gate this pes­simism. Test a per­son who has a lot of expe­ri­ence with peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races, and the amyg­dala does not acti­vate. Or, as in a won­der­ful exper­i­ment by Susan Fiske, of Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, sub­tly bias the sub­ject before­hand to think of peo­ple as indi­vid­u­als rather than as mem­bers of a group, and the amyg­dala does not budge. Humans may be hard-wired to get edgy around the Oth­er, but our views on who falls into that cat­e­go­ry are decid­ed­ly malleable.

In the ear­ly 1960s, a ris­ing star of pri­ma­tol­ogy, Irven DeVore of Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, pub­lished the first gen­er­al overview of the sub­ject. Dis­cussing his own spe­cial­ty, savan­na baboons, he wrote that they “have acquired an aggres­sive tem­pera­ment as a defense against preda­tors, and aggres­sive­ness can­not be turned on and off like a faucet. It is an inte­gral part of the mon­keys per­son­al­i­ties, so deeply root­ed that it makes them poten­tial aggres­sors in every sit­u­a­tion.  Thus the savan­na baboon became, lit­er­al­ly, a text­book exam­ple of life in an aggres­sive, high­ly strat­i­fied, male-dom­i­nat­ed soci­ety. Yet in my obser­va­tion of For­est Troop, I saw mem­bers of that same species demon­strate enough behav­ioral plas­tic­i­ty to trans­form their soci­ety into a baboon utopia.

The first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry was drenched in the blood spilled by Ger­man and Japan­ese aggres­sion, yet only a few decades lat­er it is hard to think of two coun­tries more pacif­ic. Swe­den spent the 17th cen­tu­ry ram­pag­ing through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nur­tur­ing tran­quil­i­ty. Humans have invent­ed the small nomadic band and the con­ti­nen­tal megas­tate, and have demon­strat­ed a flex­i­bil­i­ty where­by uproot­ed descen­dants of the for­mer can func­tion effec­tive­ly in the lat­ter. We lack the type of phys­i­ol­o­gy or anato­my that in oth­er mam­mals deter­mine their mat­ing sys­tem, and have come up with soci­eties based on monogamy, polyg­y­ny, and polyandry. And we have fash­ioned some reli­gions in which vio­lent acts are the entrance to par­adise and oth­er reli­gions in which the same acts con­sign one to hell. Is a world of peace­ful­ly coex­ist­ing human For­est Troops pos­si­ble? Any­one who says, “No, it is beyond our nature, knows too lit­tle about pri­mates, includ­ing ourselves.

Robert Sapolsky– Robert M. Sapol­sky, Ph.D., is the John A. and Cyn­thia Fry Gunn Pro­fes­sor of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences and a pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­o­gy and neu­ro­log­i­cal sci­ences at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. He wrote the clas­sic Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updat­ed Guide to Stress, Stress Relat­ed Dis­eases and Cop­ing. His most recent book is Mon­key­luv: And Oth­er Essays on Our Lives as Ani­mals. A longer ver­sion of this essay appeared in For­eign Affairs. We bring you this post thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berke­ley-based quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.


  1. Susan on April 21, 2008 at 3:23

    I work in a 911/police dis­patch cen­ter and I feel the anti-social­ism in myself and see it in most of my cowork­ers as well. Very few of us vol­un­teer to have the new peo­ple sit with us. Few­er still vol­un­teer to become train­ers. Yet if I am forced to have some­one sit w/me after the ini­tial wish to growl, I explain it is noth­ing per­son­al and usu­al­ly enjoy the encounter. I have been in this pro­fes­sion for 20 years. I was treat­ed w/hostility when I first came to vis­it (though I could have cared less,and find that unless you can han­dle the atti­tude on com­ing in you usu­al­ly can not han­dle the job. Hmmmm

  2. Alvaro on April 21, 2008 at 6:57

    Susan, thanks for shar­ing those very rel­e­vant impressions. 

    Per­haps you are right, and that cul­tur­al trait helps screen out bad can­di­dates. Per­haps it is some­thing that evolved for a rea­son, but it has out­lived its usefulness. 

    I guess the bot­tom line ques­tion is, does such an atti­tude make the dis­patch cen­ter more or less effec­tive? Dr. Sapolk­sky’s main point is that we don’t need to accept any spe­cif­ic behav­ioral trait as genet­ic, fixed, but con­sid­eer whether we ‑and the groups we belong to- would ben­e­fit from dis­play­ing dif­fer­ent behav­ior sets, and put them to practice.

    What would hap­pen if you vol­un­teer to become a train­er just one time?

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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