A growing fondness for baboons

A clip from the Nature documentary “Murder in the Troop.

Before June of last year I didn’t particularly like baboons. They seemed to be aggressive, ill-tempered monkeys that more often provoked a small sense of revulsion in me than curiosity. (In fact, for most of my life I thought primates were pretty boring; didn’t they just sit around eating leaves and picking ticks off each other?) Then I happened to pick up Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir and that all changed. There was so much I didn’t know about them and by the time I put down Sapolsky’s book I had an interest and affection for them that I could not have predicted.

Coincidentally I would take an introductory primatology course with Ryne Palombit, who presently studies baboons in Botswana, a few months later. The course further drew me into the ins and outs of baboon society, and I have to admit that by the end of the term I wished I too had plans to study baboons in Africa. The release of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics was enough to keep my curiosity sated over winter break, and being that I have just picked up a replacement copy of Shirley Strum’s Almost Human I once again have baboons on the brain.

If I have any regret it is that I did not overcome my primate prejudices earlier. I guess it was always easier to see them as just another kind of animal, not much different from any other beast behind glass at the zoo. Reading the work of people who have spent years in the field with them and seeing the gorillas face-to-face at the Bronx zoo certainly changed all that, though, and I certainly think I am the better for it. As Darwin once wrote in a notebook, “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke,” and I certainly think that knowing our relatives helps to untangle some of the questions about the monkey in the mirror.

Further reading (and listening);
How Baboons Think (Yes, Think)” – New York Times
Book Sheds New Light on Baboon Social Scene” – NPR

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