Robert Sapolsky rocks my world. The first time I saw him was when I bought and watched a Learning Company course entitled Biology and Human Behavior, which explored the biological underpinnings of psychology. He’s a Stanford prof with a Brooklyn accent who looks like Australapithicus Robustus with his long beard (which, I’m happy to report, gets longer and more paleo as he grows older).
I next encountered him in Foreign Affairs, when I found his article “A Natural History of Peace”. At that time, from my layman’s perspective, peace seemed like a fuzzy art that didn’t happen unless some superhuman prophet like Gandhi, King and Mandela led the dumb masses to peace through luck, charisma, brilliance, perseverance and the incompetence of the powers that be.
Sapolsky introduced me to the world of evolutionary psychology. I found that by exploring our evolutionary heritage we could get a glimpse into human nature. Did we not, as the EP trope goes, spend nearly all of our time as a species hunting in small groups on the savanna? If we understood the savanna mentality–yes, there are “monsters” in the dark; spiders and snakes DO kill and hence are really scary–maybe we could understand ourselves better. Maybe EP explained human behavior better than penis envy, electra complexes and death drives.
In “A Natural History of Peace,” Sapolosky showed me Jane Goodall’s world of vengeful, cannibalistic chimps. But he also showed me Franz de Waal’s peaceful bonobos, who settled quarrels by…having sex! That sounded like a promising lead in finding world peace.
The most amazing insights in the article were observations that Sapolsky made on his many regular trips to Kenya to observe baboons, something he has done for decades. First, he saw a miraculous change in the culture of a troop of baboons when the most aggressive males died of tuberculosis. After the TB deaths, the culture of the troop became peaceful. His second, and even more amazing observation, was that decades later, the peaceful culture persisted.
The implications, of course, are that if you change cultures, you can create peace. And if baboons can do it, can’t we?