Writing Like A Baboon

I came across an article this week that shows baboons to be more intelligent than dogs, with a story about a female baboon herding goats.

Now dogs herd animals too. But this mother baboon understood the relationships between the goats… so much so that the baboon would take a bleating kid from one barn to its mother in another barn.

As one of the baboon researchers put it: “The question is, where does this mind come from?” I think this is a rich question.

But to digress momentarily… a writing project or so ago, I was going to write a science fiction novel. As is my wont, I ponder the thing endlessly, and as often happens, I didn’t get much beyond doing some background research.

The working title was at first Six Billion Baboons, and by the time I was almost ready to start writing, the title was Eight Billion Baboons. Today if I was going to start it, it would probably be 10 Billion Baboons.

40900824 baboonbodyThe premise was that somehow in the dim dark past a bunch of laboratory and experimental baboons began to exhibit such rogue intelligence that they escaped their lab cages and overwhelmed their keepers. Their birth rate was so phenomenal and their access to wild baboons was such that they interbred and produced young like… well, Roman Catholics. At the same time, the humans suffered the effects of wars and one pandemic disease after another, and their population took a major nosedive.

In the brave new world, the baboons have supplanted humans and are beginning to suffer their own population explosion, hence the title. The few humans who still remain are almost like pets or prestigious servants.

It was going to be interesting to explore an intelligent baboon kind of culture, with all the aggressive and heirarchical differences from humans that such might entail (and the intriguing similarities).  And a chance to satirize human overpopulation and explore its stresses in the guise of baboon society. (All the trendy talk about sustainability and green revolution never brings up the single overriding factor of our impact on the planet and each other: too many people.)

I’m still fascinated by baboons (and who knows, I might pick up that novel idea again someday).

The researchers, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, who relate the above goat story found that in baboon society, it’s like a Jane Austen novel: “Be nice to your relatives and get in with the high-ranking ones.”

In that context, the baboons instantly recognize identity, kinship and rank. They understand it among themselves, and wonderfully, some talented baboons are able to work with that same understanding about other species. There is something so human-like about that… there is a continuum here, rather than the sharp division between humans and animals that we prejudicially assume.

ls ugliest mandrill baboon 02Seyfarth and Cheney wrote a book with the fascinating title: Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind (a title which partially references Charles Darwin’s observation: “He who understands baboons would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”)

(The book by the way is available in an extensive preview in Google Books.)

In the book they meet the typical objection of the behaviorist that animals cannot be shown to have mental states (just as humans do not have mental states under the strictest of behaviorist interpretations). The authors note that a baboon behaving as if she anticipates friendliness from another animal is functionally not that different than the animal “knowing” that the other is friendly.

In the book Almost Human: A Journey Into the World of Baboons by Shirley Strum, that author takes an anthropologist’s perspective into her work with the baboons Tessa, Theodora, Pebbles and many others in Kenya.

Her research was the first to suggest that male baboons did not dominate the troop, but that baboon society is a matrilineal one, centred around the females and their young.

The complexity of baboon social relationships suggests that although chimpanzees are the primate species closest to us genetically, baboons may be closer socially.

In yet another baboon chronicle, Robert Sapolsky wrote A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons. To him, the baboons he became acquainted with on the Serengeti seemed most like a bunch of quarrelsome human adolescents.

Among the series of misadventures and amusing anecdotes Sapolsky has to tell in his life with the baboons, he also is forced to come to grips with the dichotomy of himself as a man of science, darting animals with tranquilizers to record data, and as a fellow being with growing fondness for these unusual creatures.

hamadryas04Hans Kummer studied the hamadryas baboons of Ethiopia in In Quest of the Sacred Baboon which has become a text in some primatology classes due to its readability and its usefulness for understanding social evolution.

He comments: “We read into the animals something of what we are ourselves….”

Returning for a moment to Seyfarth and Cheney’s book above on Baboon Metaphysics, the authors at one point discuss how baboons, the great apes, orangutans and other primates make their appearance in literary satire.

For instance in 1817, a fellow named Thomas Love Peacock wrote Melincourt, a tale of an erudite young orangutan named Sir Oran Haut-ton. Although he cannot speak, he is elected to Parliament because his silence gives him the reputation of a reserved yet powerful thinker.

But Kummer in his book says the last authentic experts on the baboon were the ancient Egyptians. Greek sources report that Egyptian priests placed writing implements in front of newly captured hamadryas baboon males, with their white fur ruffs and shiny red posteriors. When the baboons picked up the writing implements and began scribbling away, the priests consecrated them to Thoth, weigher of souls and god of the noble art of writing.

That must explain my fascination…

[Home ]


Notes on images:

From the top, the first one is from a BBC news article .

The second is actually of a mandrill, a close relative of the baboon from this site .

And the third is of a hamadryas baboon from biologist Tim Knight’s wildlife gallery .

Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, Environment, Science Fiction, Writing

8 Comments on “Writing Like A Baboon”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    Most fascinating post, Fencer. I have had a life-time fascination with baboons and mandrills. Some of my favourite times were at the baboon enclosure in the Jardin D’Acclimatation of the Bois de Boulogne in Neuilly sur Seine. For two months, daily, I happily accompanied my young charge for whom I served as Au Pere. We would sit in rapt silence for over an hour each time, just observing the behaviour of these marvellous beings. And they would observe back, quite closely, our behaviour as if they understood what we were about. I hate to see animals in captivity, away from their natural habitat, so always felt slightly awful in my role as observer there. I have always felt a kinship with primates, but especially with the baboons, for reasons I do not comprehend. G

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi suburbanlife,

    Hey that’s great… another baboonophile… I envy you being able to observe them in such a detailed way, even though they were captive.


  3. We are so much like humans it is not even funny.

  4. Rick Matz Says:

    The next time I have it in mind to call someone a baboon, I’ll have to reconsider.

  5. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer,

    You got that right!


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    It does seem that calling someone a baboon is somehow more pejorative than saying “You chimp…”


  7. Janelli Harisson Says:


    How is this related to the usefulness of baboons?
    This is more about the INTELLECT…

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Janelli,

    Did I promise something about the scope of what I wrote? I missed that in myself… Baboons and “intellect” aren’t opposed either. Your comment mystifies me!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: