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Monday, November 17, 2003

On the Crumb Trail

I've just found another primate lover, over in California:

A press release from the San Francisco based Leakey Foundation about studies by University of Pennsylvania scientists done with foundation support is anthropomorphized as a morality play.

Baboon studies reveal pressures and benefits of complex social societies

Can the complex loves and rivalries of baboons in Botswana's Okavango Delta rival the social dynamics of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?

It is accepted that humans routinely classify others according to their individual attributes, such as status or wealth. We all know that we classify others according to what groups they belong to in society – Republicans, Red Sox fans, the 'Bloods", and so on. The ability to classify others by membership in a group, maybe even more than one group, requires a lot of computing power – brainpower - and may even require language. Until now, we have not known whether such complex group classifications are uniquely human, or whether animals do it too.

The press release from the University of Pennsylvania has quite a different spin:

Baboons identify each other by status and family

Such abilities may have influenced human evolution
We may take it for granted that humans can classify each other according to familial or social status, but how did those abilities evolve? In the Nov. 14 issue of the journal Science, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania report that, much like humans, baboons identify each other based on complex rules that determine relationships between families and status or "rank" within their particular family.

"Humans organize their knowledge of social relationships into a hierarchical structure, and they also make use of hierarchical structures when deducing relationships between words in language," said Robert Seyfarth, a professor in Penn's Department of Psychology of the School of Arts and Sciences and one of the study's authors. "The existence of such complex social classifications in baboons, a species without language, suggests that the social pressures imposed by life in complex groups may have been one factor leading to the evolution of sophisticated cognition and language in our pre-human ancestors."

The University of Pennsylvania article also has sufficient detail about the methods of the study to give some idea of the usefulness of the work.

Dominant baboons make threatening grunts, which lower ranked baboons answer with supplicating screams. The researchers tape-recorded the calls of known individuals, then used a computer to mix and match the grunts and screams to make it seem as if a lower-ranked baboon was effectively dominating a higher ranked baboon. Then, in a playback experiment, the researchers played recorded interactions to individual baboons to see if there would be a response. Some playbacks mimicked the existing hierarchy, whereas others mimicked a rank-reversal, either between two members of the same family or between two members of different families.
"Rank-reversals run counter to their expectations, and a baboon will momentarily pause and give a look, just as you might if you didn't quite believe what you had just heard," said Thore Bergman, lead author on the paper. "Our results demonstrated that these relationships were real and relevant to these baboons."

The Leakey article wildly anthropomorphizes and romanticizes baboon social behavior while providing little real information, but the scientists present results that speculate about the evolution of sophisticated cognition and language driven by life in complex groups. They seem to have quite different objectives and conceptions of audience.

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