Standford University neurobiologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky has published some very interesting observations about his studies of baboons in Kenya . His research was showcased in the PBS special and National Geographic video entitled “Stress.” (I highly recommend this video for many reasons, only some of which will be addressed herein). While his initial objective was to observe and document the commonalities of hierarchal structures and the effect of stress within those structures between humans and primates, he was presented with an unexpected outcome when cataclysmic disease transformed the baboon troop he was studying from one dominated by alpha males, to one dominated by females. His studies began over 30 years ago where he sought out to observe what similarities might exist between baboons and humans regarding hierarchical structures and the physical effects of stress related to social standing. He did so by visual observation and biological studies of the two stress hormones, adrenaline and glucocorticoids.
Sapolsky noted that the causes of stress in the baboon troop were similar to human cultures in that they stemmed from mostly social and psychological causes. He found that the baboon troop was ruled by dominant males who were aggressive bullies that attacked and bullied passive males and dominated and sexually controlled females. One video diary shows an alpha male torturing a subordinate male by holding his head under water at the river’s edge. Sapolsky admitted to not liking baboons for this reason, referring to these dominant baboon males as
“scheming, back-stabbing, Machiavellian, bastards who are awful”
“In a typical baboon troop, females experience considerable physical and psychological stress, being subject to particularly high rates of displacement aggression and domination by males.” 
He did admit however that their cultural structures were perfect for his scientific studies in that they revealed a common thread between humans and these primates: the biological effects of stress were very similar between humans and these baboons. He found that in both human and baboons, the negative effects of stress were greater for those lower in the social hierarchy. This may fly in the face of the “type-A” theories that present dominant males as type-A, high-driving, personalities but that would require an entirely different discussion about positive and negative stress which I won’t delve into here. The point is that the socially dominant alpha males in both baboon and human cultures are able to maintain better health through their social status. The fact that women outlive men in our culture must also be viewed through the prism of hierarchy, remembering that there are males who are not at the top of the heap, yet are driven by social norms to be there. They are experiencing great stress from their lower social standing, thus contributing to these negative stress effects.
As a result, Dr. Sapolsky, who was the recipient of the McArthur Foundation’s Genius Fellowship over 20 years ago, made two important discoveries about how a human’s and baboon’s social rank determined their levels of stress hormones: 1) dominant males had lower levels and less physical and psychological distress and 2) lower ranking humans and baboons (the “have nots”) had much higher levels of stress hormones and exhibited much more stress and deteriorated health. What was critical about this discovery was his conclusion that in both humans and baboons “It’s not just your rank, it’s what your rank means to society.” …and so the nexus to our current dilemma. Whoever is on top of the hierarchy remains in control of the resources and the health and well-being of the society’s members.
In addition to these sought after principles, fate presented Dr. Sapolsky with an unexpected glimpse of what might happen if the social stratification norm was turned on its head. Originally, the baboon troop included “males [who] were aggressive” and a “society highly stratified, [where] females took a lot of grief…” Then, in a tragic turn of events, the baboons came upon a tourist lodge garbage dump where they began to forage for food. Unfortunately, the food was tainted with tuberculosis. As a result, nearly one-half of the males in the troop died. Sapolsky was devastated; that is until he realized an important fact — it was only the aggressive males that died. In fact, every alpha male died. Now, you may wonder why this occurred since his prior observations led to the scientific conclusions that alpha males had the greater physical condition. However, as alpha males, they contributed to their own demise by gorging themselves on the tainted food, leaving only the leftover scraps for those lower in social status (females and passive males.)
Is this starting to sound relevant yet?
With the troop now composed of twice as many females than males, and the remaining males being the more passive, “socially affiliative males,” the culture of the baboons transformed into a more peaceful, egalitarian structure. Bullying and aggression were all but eliminated. What made this an important transformation is that in this primate culture, alpha males always come from outside of the troop – they are not born into the troop. Any alpha male born into a troop, eventually leaves to join a new troop. However, subsequent to this transformation, any alpha male that attempted to enter the transformed troop were quickly rebuked by the females and the passive males. The result? These aggressive males assimilated into the more egalitarian society, living and cooperating under the rules of the newly socially dominant group.
Do Sapolsky’s studies reveal important lessons for our human culture? I believe they do and his revelations give us a glimpse into the type of world we prefer to live in — one where cooperation replaces violent aggression in the name of maintaining social dominance. The current legitimizing myths about female leadership must be dispelled. There is nothing wrong and everything right about being feminine. We have allowed our social structures to paint us as weak, yet our nature of being good listeners who are diplomatic and nurturing are all positive attributes that would bode well for our future and the world we leave for our children. Hillary Clinton is leading the way and showing us how it is done. How can we follow and emulate her in a way that forges the necessary common bond which will erode the current social dominance of alpha males? Where do we go from here? That is the question and the challenge we face.
 Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Social Status and Health in Humans and Other Animals. Annual Review of Anthropology. 33: 393-418.
 Sapolsky, R. M. (August 2006). Social Cultures Among Nonhuman Primates : California Forum On Theory In Anthropology. Current Anthropology 47, 4
Another Lecture by Dr. Sapolsky: http://tinyurl.com/qn58nf on the effects of stress in the human and non-human condition (this is for those interested in learning more about the effects of stress on the body.)
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