Primate Counter-Culture: Monkeying Around with Our Human Origins


In the past, I have recorded many harmonies or synchronicities between my Tower of Song program and Robert Pollie’s 7th Avenue Project (which repeat broadcast follows my program). There have been minor and major harmonies between our two programs for years now. However, every once in a while a super-harmony comes along, and last week’s (Feb. 10, 2014) was one of them. This last harmony or synchronicity was an overall, thematic one.

Last week’s musical essay (Part 5 of “The New Year & Rebirth In Archaic Myth & Ritual”) ended with a reference to the 1960’s “Counter-Culture;” to the cultural renaissance or rebirth that the young generation of that era collectively experienced (i.e., “The Age of Aquarius”). This is what is meant by the term “The Woodstock Generation.” (By the way, “Woodstock” was the song that ended last week’s musical essay.) Once more, given that it was the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America, the GS managed to work this commemoration in with the theme of the musical essay, playing some four Beatles songs in all. Now, as the two specials on the Beatles pointed out (one on the Internet and one on TV), they were the vanguard of a cultural revolution that hoped for a more peaceful and more spiritual world. This is what one commentator meant by “what was coming through them.” In other words, you could say that the Beatles represented (as did Bob Dylan) the group-mind of a new generation.  As the John Lennon song that became a rallying call for ending war put it, “Give Peace A Chance.” The GS even threw in a mention of the Beatles in his final paragraph to make his point about a new cultural rebirth.


Robert Pollie’s program was called “The Nicer Side of Primates,” the second segment featuring neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, author of the book, A Prmate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, which is about Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of troops of baboons in Kenya. Here’s part of the lead-in to the interview: “… neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky discovers that even baboons—long believed to be incorrigibly bellicose—can change their ways and make nice.”

Now, “What in the world,” you may well ask, “does this topic about primate baboon troops have to do with your program?” This essay attempts to answer this question. (See link for audio of the last part of the 7th Avenue Project.)



The last baboon troop that Sapolsky studied was very special, contradicting the normative primatological view of these primates as an aggressive pack led by a violent alpha male. In other words, their social interactions didn't necessarily conform to accepted theories.  It seems that Sapolosky has exploded the myth of the supremacy of the alpha male in primate groups. Among the baboon troops, he shows how a complex social order, without the usual hierarchy, and complex social arrangements where important leadership functions are carried out by senior females and that lower ranking males suffer higher stress levels and greater ill health.  (As a neuroscientist, Sapolosky observes the social hierarchy and interactions of his baboon group, guesses which individuals appear to be most stressed or most relaxed and then checks their hormones and blood chemistry.)

Sapolsky traces the origins of a younger generation of relatively non-violent baboons from an older generation of hierarchical, aggressive baboons. Here’s the description of what he discovered:

Pollie: What they saw their causes Sapolsky’s job to drop.

Sapolsky: What’s flabbergasting, and you spend your time around baboons and in five minutes you can see that this was a different troop.

Pollie: “Different” is putting it mildly. Instead of the usual mayhem and beat downs, the baboons was sitting quietly together and getting along. Instead of aggression, there was camaraderie…. [plays different baboon grunting]

Sapolsky: It’s a relaxed come-on-over socially interact with me vocalization. And you’ll get the group in a good mood where they’re all sitting out there together doing this grunting stuff and everbody’s having a fine time.

Pollie: And that’s exactly what was happening. The baboons were hanging out together, kicking back, and grooming each other. Not only where the females grooming, which is normal, but so where the males!
Sapolsky: … watching adult males grooming each other—this just does not happen in a normal baboon troop, and here are these guys doing that! …

Now, given my just finished musical essay, where I referred to the Beatles and what they represented to the counter-culture, I couldn’t resist making a comparison to what I was hearing on the 7th Avenue Project’s program about baboons. But to my complete surprise—and joy—Robert Pollie made the same connection: 

Pollie: Baboons. Nasty, brutish baboons were making love, not war!


Sapolsky, with Pollie’s help, summarizes how this new social behavior came about. In short, the aggressive, “tough guy” alpha-male types went to the nearby human garbage dump to fight over the spoils and the younger, gentle males stayed behind and socialized with the females. The result: the older, aggressive males died out and the younger, mild-mannered ones lived.

Pollie: So the meek inherit the troop!

Sapolsky: And suddenly you get a troop with the social atmosphere that’s real different. There’s less aggression, and not just less aggression but of a very distinctive type; they simply did not take it out on the innocent bystanders. And this turns into one big ol’ commune by savannah baboon standards.

“One big ol’ Commune”! Now I’m emboldened to thinking wild analogies!

Pollie: So you kill off the bullies and the troublemakers, leaving only the nice guys, and things get kinder and gentler….After about seven years, an entirely new generation of males made up the baboon troop, who had migrated in from the outside.
Pollie: That’s what male baboons do; when they reach adolescence, they leave home and go join a new troop.
Sapolsky: These are guys who grew up in other troops, in your traditional miserable competitive, hierarchical, violent, male-dominated societies, and showed up as adolescents in this troop. And somehow these guys were learning “we don’t do stuff like that around here,” and somehow this social atmosphere was being passed on. And by the definitions of every card-carrying anthropologist out there this counts as a “culture,” a culture of less aggression.
Pollie: “Culture” is a term that scientists use for things we do that aren’t coded in our genes, but are picked up and passed on by learning and imitation; stuff we hand down from one generation to the next, not by biological inheritance but by teaching and custom. And, if the words “culture” and “baboons” sound strange together, that’s because scientists hadn’t seen anything like this before….
Sapolsky: It forms what Frans de Waal, calls a “social culture.” And I think what this baboon troop has is a “social culture.”

So, okay, now I had the justification for my musings on the analogy between the new generation of peaceful baboon “culture” and the new generation of the Sixties “culture,” both non-hierarchical cultures coming about by learning and imitation (young people leaving home to join a new group of like-minded folks—maybe even a “commune”). I thought: It wouldn’t be too much to talk about the “baboon counter-culture” of the Serengeti! Now Pollie tells us what was really “mind-blower” about this whole discovery.

Pollie: And this, dear listeners, is the mind-blower. It was not that peace had broken out temporarily, after the bad actors were killed. It was that détente —that de-escalation—had taken root and lasted. A peaceful culture had taken hold and was being perpetuated through the generations. And that pretty much goes against everything we thought we knew. A lot of scientists had believed that violence in baboons was innate, predetermined, and inescapable. And maybe not just in baboons.
Sapolsky: Parenthesis, hey we grew up on the savannah also as a species. Maybe that’s what we were like; maybe that’s in our nature.

Pollie: That notion has a long history in science and in popular culture…. Supposedly, that’s who we were and who we still are—bloody-minded then and bloody-minded now!


This goes against the standard “killer ape” theory or hypothesis, which holds that war and interpersonal aggression are the driving force behind human evolution. (It was originated by Raymond Dart in the 1950s, later developed further in African Genesis by Robert Ardrey in 1961 and On Agrression in 1963 by Conrad Lorenz, and then popularized by the movie 2001 Space Odyssey. The theory gained notoriety for suggesting that the urge to do violence was a fundamental part of human psychology; that human aggression is genetically inherited and thus inevitable. Sapolsky’s evidence doesn’t support this kind of genetic determinism. He identifies the transition from a violent to a non-violent baboon troop not due to genetic evolution, but from a “cultural evolution”—i.e., learning a different behavior or way of being. In other words, the older generation of violent males died out and the younger generation had a chance to learn cooperation and getting along.

Sapolsky: All it took was one damn generation, and you invented a baboon troop that violates everything in those textbooks. And essentially the punch-line winds up being: if you could take some non-human primate species with tails and no language or anything else, and they’ve just overturned most textbooks and shown in a generation that they can come up with a much more peaceful society—we don’t have a damn leg to stand on that there are inevitabilities in human social systems.


When I heard this, I thought of the younger generation of males of the Sixties who wanted to “give peace a chance” during the Vietnam War. This was a playful analogy, by which I linked the counter-culture with the new baboon culture. And, sure enough, some minutes later, Pollie could help but quote that line!  (And I also thought: Didn’t John Lennon say it was all about “evolution”?)

Once more, Sapolsky’s descriptions of his new baboon culture sound to me like primatological metaphors for the young generation of Sixties counter-culturalists. It’s as if these more feminized, peaceful “live-and-let-live” baboons are the primate ancestors of the counter-culture!

The ramifications are obvious, and Pollie next cites the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, who sees in Sapolsky’s findings lessons for humanity; that primate plasticity gives the lie to predetermined war and aggression. He published an article about Sapolsky’s work in the magazine, entitled “The Natural History of Peace.” (John Lennon would have been proud!) He points that that humans are not predetermined to war and aggression (not the prisoners of our genes), that we can learn to cooperate and live in peace with our neighbors, and thus that history is open-ended.

Pollie: If baboons—baboons for goodness sakes—can give peace a chance, then maybe we can too. [Song, “Peace In The Valley” is played. The GS would have played the Beatles.]

In short, the principle of cooperation in nature (not the 19th-century fantasy of the “survival of the fittest”), the plasticity of primate behavior, and the lesson we can take from Sapolsky’s peaceful baboon troop means that we can monkey round with our human origins!  


Therefore, on the greater thematic level of the GS’s musical essays in this series, the harmony or synchronicity between the two programs is that both are dealing with the quest for human origins. As expressed in the musical essays, the object of inquiry into the archaic New Year festivals is to go back—way, way back—to our cultural origins. In fact, in the second musical essay of the series, I quoted late visionary philosopher, Terence McKenna, who believed that “the way out is back and that the future is a forward escape into the past.” I suggested that what McKenna identified as the “archaic revival,” fueled by a “nostalgia for the lost archaic,” is actually rooted in the same “nostalgia for beginnings” that Prof. Eliade identified as a primary trait of archaic man. For McKenna (also interested in our primate ancestors, particularly the non-violent bonobo chimps), the archaic revival comes out of a postmodern nostalgia for our cultural origins; a nostalgia for the lost archaic, which he traces back to the pre-history of Paleolithic times 15, 000 years ago. Therefore, I suggest that as a scientist Sapolosky is on the same quest for origins, but taking our human origins back even farther to primate societies. (Again, McKenna wrote a book that dealt with primates and human evolution, Food Of The Gods, which put forward his “stoned monkey theory” of the African savannah in an attempt to revision our animal evolution as from violent primates.)


It is obvious that the upshot of Sapolsky’s findings has to do with what it means for the view of our human evolution, since he and Pollie discuss this. This is what Pollie calls our “animal story.”

Near the end of the program, Pollie points out that when Sapolsky was looking for the agent of change in these peaceful younger males and had ruled out genetic inheritance and self-selection, he found that it must be the female baboons who were playing the role of the peacekeepers. Thus, I see the role of the female baboons in this peaceful baboon troop also as a primatological metaphor for what the feminist cultural anthropologists (like Raine Eisler) tell us about the early Goddess-centered cultures of Anatolia and the Mediterranean, which were not patriarchal (male-dominated), hierarchical, and warlike. These “egalitarian”civilizations were finally conquered by the invading, warlike patriarchal nomads from the north. So it seems like it’s the same old “animal story” that Sapolsky worries about, which would “shatter the truce” of his peaceful baboon troop and cause it’s disintegration; i.e.,—the invasion of warlike males from other troops.


In summation, if what Sapolsky discovered with his new baboon troop “made his jaw drop,” this amazing harmony or synchronicity between our two back-to-back programs did the same for the GS.