Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind
Dorothy L. Cheney, Robert M. Seyfarth
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In 1838 Charles Darwin jotted in a notebook, “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Baboon Metaphysics is Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth’s fascinating response to Darwin’s challenge.
Cheney and Seyfarth set up camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where they could intimately observe baboons and their social world. Baboons live in groups of up to 150, including a handful of males and eight or nine matrilineal families of females. Such numbers force baboons to form a complicated mix of short-term bonds for mating and longer-term friendships based on careful calculations of status and individual need.
But Baboon Metaphysics is concerned with much more than just baboons’ social organization—Cheney and Seyfarth aim to fully comprehend the intelligence that underlies it. Using innovative field experiments, the authors learn that for baboons, just as for humans, family and friends hold the key to mitigating the ill effects of grief, stress, and anxiety.
Written with a scientist’s precision and a nature-lover’s eye, Baboon Metaphysics gives us an unprecedented and compelling glimpse into the mind of another species.
“The vivid narrative is like a bush detective story.”—Steven Poole, Guardian
“Baboon Metaphysics is a distillation of a big chunk of academic lives. . . . It is exactly what such a book should be—full of imaginative experiments, meticulous scholarship, limpid literary style, and above all, truly important questions.”—Alison Jolly, Science
“Cheney and Seyfarth found that for a baboon to get on in life involves a complicated blend of short-term relationships, friendships, and careful status calculations. . . . Needless to say, the ensuing political machinations and convenient romantic dalliances in the quest to become numero uno rival the bard himself.”—Science News
“Cheney and Seyfarth’s enthusiasm is obvious, and their knowledge is vast and expressed with great clarity. All this makes Baboon Metaphysics a captivating read. It will get you thinking—and maybe spur you to travel to Africa to see it all for yourself.”—Asif A. Ghazanfar, Nature
“Through ingenious playback experiments . . . Cheney and Seyfarth have worked out many aspects of what baboons used their minds for, along with their limitations. Reading a baboon’s mind affords an excellent grasp of the dynamics of baboon society. But more than that, it bears on the evolution of the human mind and the nature of human existence.”—Nicholas Wade, New York Times
Diagram Prize Nominee (2008)
manners, cleanliness, and linguistic ability they treat him more like an equal (Swift 1726). The satirical accounts of the 18th and 19th centuries mocked not only the apes themselves but also the scientists and philosophers who were so undecided about the animals’ classiﬁcation. And the satirists had a point: at a time when zoological taxonomy was undergoing a revolution, no one knew exactly what to do about these creatures that were so much like us and yet so obviously different. In the ﬁrst
experiments can illuminate a species’ abilities only if their results can be placed within the context of an animal’s natural social behavior. In the absence of such grounding, they remain difﬁcult, if not impossible, to interpret. 26 T H E P R I M AT E M I N D I N M Y T H A N D L E G E N D Studies of captive apes may be particularly difﬁcult to interpret because human “enculturation” may affect the apes’ cognitive abilities and performance on tests. To date, most of the evidence that
other than nonhuman primates are able to keep track of temporary changes in highly transient relationships. Dominance ranks and kinship relations are relatively static attributes of individuals. Consortships, in contrast, are temporary and unpredictable: individual males and females are not always involved in consortships, and their consort status can change over very short periods of time. Baboons, however, are able to monitor the status not only of relatively long-term kinship and dominance
seeing and knowing Cooperative contexts A colleague of ours, Conrad Brain, was once observing baboons in a desert canyon in Namibia when he was approached by a juvenile, Chloe. Chloe sat down several feet in front of him and gazed into his eyes. Next, she looked down at the crevice below the rock where Conrad was sitting and gave a soft alarm bark. She then gazed into his eyes again and repeated the alarm call. Conrad followed Chloe’s direction of gaze and saw a spitting cobra lying just below
locations has food. When presented with a human or another dog informant, they reliably choose the location where the informant is looking, pointing, or orienting (e.g., Hare et al. 1998; Hare and Tomasello 1999; Miklosi and Topal 2004). Indeed, in one direct comparative experiment dogs were considerably more accurate than chimpanzees in their ability to use communicative cues like pointing, gazing, and reaching to locate food (Bräuer et al. 2006). In addition to using other individuals’