Can the Chain Still Hold You?



Robert Sapolsky:

Baboons... literally have been the textbook example of a highly aggressive, male-dominated, hierarchical society. Because these animals hunt, because they live in these aggressive troupes on the Savannah... they have a constant baseline level of aggression which inevitably spills over into their social lives.

Scientists have never observed a baboon troupe that wasn't highly aggressive, and they have compelling reasons to think this is simply baboon nature, written into their genes. Inescapable.

Or at least, that was true until the 1980s, when Kenya experienced a tourism boom.

Sapolsky was a grad student, studying his first baboon troupe. A new tourist lodge was built at the edge of the forest where his baboons lived. The owners of the lodge dug a hole behind the lodge and dumped their trash there every morning, after which the males of several baboon troupes — including Sapolsky's — would fight over this pungent bounty.

Before too long, someone noticed the baboons didn't look too good. It turned out they had eaten some infected meat and developed tuberculosis, which kills baboons in weeks. Their hands rotted away, so they hobbled around on their elbows. Half the males in Sapolsky's troupe died.

This had a surprising effect. There was now almost no violence in the troupe. Males often reciprocated when females groomed them, and males even groomed other males. To a baboonologist, this was like watching Mike Tyson suddenly stop swinging in a heavyweight fight to start nuzzling Evander Holyfield. It never happened.

This was interesting, but Sapolsky moved to the other side of the park and began studying other baboons. His first troupe was "scientifically ruined" by such a non-natural event. But really, he was just heartbroken. He never visited.

Six years later, Sapolsky wanted to show his girlfriend where he had studied his first troupe, and found that they were still there, and still surprisingly violence-free. This one troupe had apparently been so transformed by their unusual experience — and the continued availability of easy food — that they were now basically non-violent.

And then it hit him.

Only one of the males now in the troupe had been through the event. All the rest were new, and hadn't been raised in the tribe. The new males had come from the violent, dog-eat-dog world of normal baboon-land. But instead of coming into the new troupe and roughing everybody up as they always did, the new males had learned, "We don't do stuff like that here." They had unlearned their childhood culture and adapted to the new norms of the first baboon pacifists.

As it turned out, violence wasn't an unchanging part of baboon nature. In fact it changed rather quickly, when the right causal factor flipped, and — for this troupe and the new males coming in — it has stayed changed to this day.

Somehow, the violence had been largely circumstantial. It was just that the circumstances had always been the same.

Until they weren't.

We still don't know how much baboon violence to attribute to nature vs. nurture, or exactly how this change happened. But it's worth noting that changes like this can and do happen pretty often.

Slavery was ubiquitous for millennia. Until it was outlawed in every country on Earth.

Humans had never left the Earth. Until we achieved the first manned orbit and the first manned moon landing in a single decade.

Smallpox occasionally decimated human populations for thousands of years. Until it was eradicated.

The human species was always too weak to render itself extinct. Until we discovered the nuclear chain reaction and manufactured thousands of atomic bombs.

Religion had a grip on 99.5% or more of humanity until 1900, and then the rate of religious adherence plummeted to 85% by the end of the century. Whole nations became mostly atheistic, largely because for the first time the state provided people some basic stability and security. (Some nations became atheistic because of atheistic dictators, others because they provided security and stability to their citizens.)

I would never have imagined I could have the kinds of conversations I now regularly have at the Singularity Institute, where people change their degrees of belief several times in a single conversation as new evidence and argument is presented, where everyone at the table knows and applies a broad and deep scientific understanding, where people disagree strongly and say harsh-sounding things (due to Crocker's rules) but end up coming to agreement after 10 minutes of argument and carry on as if this is friendship and business as usual — because it is.

But then, never before has humanity had the combined benefits of an overwhelming case for one correct probability theory, a systematic understanding of human biases and how they work, free access to most scientific knowledge, and a large community of people dedicated to the daily practice of CogSci-informed rationality exercises and to helping each other improve.

This is part of what gives me a sense that more is possible. Compared to situational effects, we tend to overestimate the effects of lasting dispositions on people's behavior — the fundamental attribution error. But I, for one, was only taught to watch out for this error in explaining the behavior of individual humans, even though the bias also appears when explaining the behavior of humans as a species. I suspect this is partly due to the common misunderstanding that heritability measures the degree to which a trait is due to genetic factors. Another reason may be that for obvious reasons scientists rarely try very hard to measure the effects of exposing human subjects to radically different environments like an artificial prison or total human isolation.

When taming a baby elephant, its trainer will chain one of its legs to a post. When the elephant tries to run away, the chain and the post are strong enough to keep it in place. But when the elephant grows up, it is strong enough to break the chain or uproot the post. Yet the owner can still secure the elephant with the same chain and post, because the elephant has been conditioned to believe it cannot break free. It feels the tug of the chain and gives up — a kind of learned helplessness. The elephant acts as if it thinks the chain's limiting power is intrinsic to nature rather than dependent on a causal factor that held for years but holds no longer.

Much has changed in the past few decades, and much will change in the coming years. Sometimes it's good to check if the chain can still hold you. Do not be tamed by the tug of history. Maybe with a few new tools and techniques you can just get up and walk away — to a place you've never seen before.