Baboons who share personality traits stick together – humans shouldn't be tempted to do the same

A new study into baboon behaviour teaches us quite a lot about ourselves.

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We think we are unique – and we probably are – we’re smart, really smart. But what makes us doubly special is our ability to reason.

In 1698, Edward Tyson, an English anatomist, dissected a chimpanzee (his “Pygmie”) and found its vocal cords were comparable to those of humans. “Exactly as ‘tis in Man,” he writes in Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris, Tyson's seminal work on anatomy“And if there was any further advantage for the forming of Speech, I can’t but think our Pygmie had it,” he adds.

Tyson couldn’t understand why it was that apes – with all the necessary machinery – couldn’t speak. He reverted to the sayings of Aristotle, and deduced it was because humans have a thing called reason. Reason isn’t something that can be found in the body – it’s a “spiritual essence”. Reason, in some ways, reinforces the status of humans as the reasoning and speaking creature.

Because of this status, humans have developed an arrogant attitude. We feel different from “the rest” – as though our branch from the tree of evolution has been cut off – it’s “us” and “them”. However, looking at the behaviours of primates is a humbling reminder of who we are and where we came from.

New research led by the University of Cambridge and the Zoological Society of London shows that, within large troops, male and female chacma baboons spend more time grooming those with similar characteristics to themselves: associating with those of a similar age, dominance, social rank, even those with similar personality types such as boldness. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Because humans do the same (well, expect the grooming part. Or maybe you do – who’s judging?). This type of behaviour is known as homophily, or love of the same.

Previous research done by the team shows two baboon troops of a certain age and personality type – the younger, bolder ones – are more likely to be the information generators: those who solve foraging problems. This in itself can be a problem because, given that information generators spend much of their time in the company of similar baboons, researchers say there is a risk that acquired information may stay within the group, thus decreasing the chances of new knowledge being passed on to the wider troop.

These research discoveries came about when the research team tracked the same two baboon troops from dawn until dusk across Namibia’s Tsaobis Nature Park, over several months each year between 2009 to 2014, to monitor baboon social network structures. These are the first studies of their kind, and the latest research is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Like the previous study, to test for the personality traits of boldness, ie. an assertive curiosity, the researchers planted unfamiliar foods on the edge of paths commonly used by baboon troops. This included hard-boiled eggs and small bread rolls dyed red or green. The research team then measured the time the baboons spent on investigating the new food, and whether they ate it, to determine how bold members of the baboon troops were.

"Our analysis is the first to suggest that bolder and shyer baboons are more likely to associate with others that share this personality trait,” said Dr Guy Cowlishaw of the Zoological Society of London to Fred Lewsey of Cambridge Research Communications. “Previous studies in other animals – from chimps to guppies – suggests that time spent in the company of those with similar personalities could promote cooperation among individuals. “Why baboons should demonstrate homophily for boldness is unclear, but it could be a heritable trait, and the patterns we’re seeing reflect family associations,” he adds.  

Dr Alecia Carter of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology says to Lewsey that gender division surprisingly didn’t occur in the baboons' social interaction. In fact, females preferred to groom males. This is partly to do with the sexual engagements associated with breeding, but also as a tactic on the part of females to curry favour with particular males for the sake of their offspring.

“Chacma baboon males will often commit infanticide, killing the babies of rivals. Female baboons try and get around this by being as promiscuous as possible to confuse the paternal identity – so males find it harder to tell if they are killing a rival’s offspring or their own,” added Dr Carter. “They will also try and form bonds with particular males in the hope that they will protect their offspring and let the babies forage in good places with them – although males tend to be fairly lazy when it comes to this; it’s up to the babies to follow the males to good food.”   

I ask Dr Carter what humans can learn from baboon social behaviour. She replies:

It might be wise to look beyond one's immediate social preferences for novel ideas from time to time. More generally, previous studies of baboons' social behaviour have highlighted the benefits of social relationships for their health and survival of their offspring. Whether you have few strong connections with others, or many weak connections with others, these connections are important for myriad aspects of one's life, from looking after infants to accessing information.”

So why not get out of your social comfort zone and meet new people once in a while? You’re likely to explore new ideas, increase your knowledge, discover new opportunities and develop a better understanding of life.

Original article found on Cambridge Research News. Changes have been made. 

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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