On Revolutionary Baboons

(there will be proper posts soon, but today another link)

This link is to a Russian-doll of awesome. The outer doll is the blog, ‘sex nerd‘, which I am adding to my blogroll for its combination of science and militant humanism. The doll inside that is a post, about a story about baboons inside a documentary about stress.

I’m most intrigued by the baboon story. In essence, a mix of factors led to all the aggressive, stressed-out, anti-social baboons (mostly males) in a certain troop dying. As a result, the remaining members (mostly females) began to interact in a markedly different way: less aggression in general, less competition, more grooming, more getting-together-and-feeling-alright.

Moreover, that new culture seems to have been able to maintain itself by training new members to behave in the same way. That is, a new stable social arrangement became possible which had not previously been observed, and individuals behaved differently within that arrangement.

I’d like to use this to bolster a slightly more abstract point: I think the intellectually responsible course is to take mutability as a default assumption, not fixity. A mutable species, capable of a range of different social formations, might very easily display only a single, rigid, pattern in 100 different observations, because some non-obvious feature of the circumstances was keeping it in one of its stable states. But if we infer that it’s innately fixed that way, and can’t change, we’d be misled.

Moreover, we’re probably somewhat biased towards ‘innate fixity’ reasoning, because it simplifies our information processing. Certainly, our impressions of other people tend to over-estimate the role of internal dispositions in explaining situational behaviour. There may be more evidence regarding this that I’m not familiar with.

Given that, a certain active presumption of flexibility seems reasonable, to correct these two sources of error. But perhaps I’m myself being biased by my emotional investment in ideas of radical change, like economic co-ordination without private ownership of productive wealth. That’s something else to be wary of.

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