[lit-ideas] Re: My Friends the Baboons

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 28 May 2014 14:07:59 +0100 (BST)

Mark Pallen, a Professor of Microbial Genomics at Birmingham University (also 
Cambridge graduate but let's not hold that against him, he did teach in Belfast 
to atone), offers this on the question of whether "natural selection" operates 
at the level of "genes" [a la Dawkins], individuals or "groups" [as per "group 
"[Group selection was] largely discredited after critiques by George Williams, 
John Maynard Smith and others. In recent years, interest has re-focused on the 
possibility [of] selection at multiple levels (for example, when viewing 
genomes as ecosystems of genes), but the orthodox Darwinian view still limits 
selection to the level of genes or individual." [The Rough Guide to Evolution, 

The Marais' baboon example no more refutes this "orthodox Darwinian view" than 
that bees may sting and die to protect the hive: it is an example that can be 
explained by Darwinian "natural selection" at an individual or "gene" level. 
Therefore it is not an example that proves "group selection". 

But is it really even compatible with "group selection"?

My posts tried to explain why it is not an example of "group selection" but 
must be, in Darwinian terms, an example of "kin selection". As such it is not a 
counter-example to the view that "nothing is 'selected for' via its removal 
from the gene-pool": on the contrary, it must be an example of something 
'selected for' because - and only because - of how it protects the same "genes" 
from removal from the gene-pool. 

Anyone who disputes this is disputing that an orthodox Darwinian explanation 
applies or is showing that they do not really understand the character of 
Darwinian explanation. It would, I suggest, take much more than a single 
uncorroborated story of the baboon type to challenge "the orthodox Darwinian 
view": just as we would not replace that Darwinian view because a Walt Disney 
nature documentary told us that bees sting to protect the hive because they are 
selfless like human soldiers sacrificing their lives for the greater good of 
the group.


On Wednesday, 28 May 2014, 11:14, "dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" 
<dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

Tbanks to L. Helm for the fascinating excerpts from "African Genesis". 

I did track down the first recent reference to the baboon. It was Helm's  
answer to McEvoy:

> As to the argument,

Helm writes,

> that,

quoting McEvoy,

“we need to reject the idea that behaviour that removes an organism from  
the gene-pool will be 'selected for' because it benefits the remaining group 
-  this simply does not work as a theory, because nothing can be 'selected 
for' via  its removal from the gene-pool.”

Helm comments:

> That can’t be true.  I’ve read several authors refer to organisms  doing
> that very thing.  One early author, [Marais, b. South  Africa], referred 
to a
> pair of adult baboon males guarding their tribes  passage up through a
> narrow passage where they would be safe for the  night.  The leopard came
> and they set upon it with  precession.  The leopard killed both of them,
> but before he did,  one of them bit into the leopard’s jugular.

That was an excellent  recollection, and Helm has taken the trouble to 
quote the secondary source, as  it were, as per the author of "African Genesis" 
(not Marais himself):

The passage in "African Genesis", I've checked, is preceded by references  
to interactions between baboons and humans, and it is in this segment where  
Ardrey (the author) refers, if not to suicidal, to 'heroic' and 'altruist'  
behaviour (more on this later). 

He recollects the baboon's treatment of the wounded in battle, as it were,  
and their respect for the corpse, and one instance when a hunter was  
counterattacked by the whole pack, which did not recede until the hunter shot 
one of the baboons. 

I'm not sure where Ardrey is coming from but he does make a point that talk 
of 'altruism' may be dangerous here. He also notes that one may detect a 
bit of  'anthropomorphism' (I think is the term Audrey uses) in some of the 
writings by  Marais -- but Ardrey is convinced that NO SUCH tendency applies 
to the  particular incident with the leopard, where Marais keep the 
description to the  point -- "there's no interpretation" I think is Ardrey's 
wording. So let's  revise the report, as transcribed by Helm.

Ardrey notes that the primeval (if that's the word) enemy of the baboon is  
not man, but the leopard. Man-baboon interactions have been tinted (if 
that's  the word) with the baboon 'unlawlike' behaviour of consuming crops 
has  gained for the species the title of 'pest'. It's different with the 
baboon's  attitude to the leopard.

Ardrey reports:

“Marais could always tell when a leopard was in the neighbourhood of his  
own band. Protected by nothing but the rocky hollows in the krans and  
concealed only by the limbs of the massive wild fig, the troop would begin to  
move uneasily.  He would sense the restlessness, and then hear a particular  
cry of disturbance.  Helplessly the troop would wait for unseen death to  pass 
unseeing. But one night the leopard came early."

“It was still dusk. The troop had only just returned from the feeding  
grounds and had barely time to reach its scattered sleeping places in the  
high-piled rocks behind the fig tree.  Now it shrilled its terror.   And Marais 
could see the leopard.  It appeared from the bush and took its  insolent 
time.  So vulnerable were the baboons that the leopard seemed to  recognize no 
need for hurry.  He crouched just below a little jutting cliff  above him."

“The two males moved cautiously.  The leopard, if he saw them, ignored  

This seems interesting from a Darwinian perspective in that we may assume  
that the leopard (qua species) would have acquired some concern for the  
potential dangers of a seeming harmless piece of prey. So, perhaps there is a  
bit of an 'anthropomorphic' attitude in describing the leopard's 'insolence' 
and  'ignorance' (if not scorn) at these pair of avant-garde warriors.

Ardrey goes on:

"[The leopard's] attention was fixed on the swarming, screeching,  
defenceless horde scrambling among the rocks."

Ardrey writes, "his" -- and I also wonder, because in big cats, as I think  
I read, it's usually females that do the hunting. 

"Then the two males dropped.  They dropped on him from a height of  twelve 
feet.  One bit at the leopard’s spine.  The other struck at his  throat 
while clinging to his neck from below."

Indeed co-ordinated attack. 

"In an instant the leopard disemboweled with his hind claws the baboon  
hanging to his neck and caught in his jaws the baboon on his back.  But it  was 
too late.  The dying disemboweled baboon had hung on just long enough  and 
had reached the leopard’s jugular vein with his canines. 

“Marais watched while movement stilled beneath the little jutting  cliff.  
Night fell.  Death, hidden from all but the impartial stars  enveloped prey 
and predator alike.  And in the hollow places in the rocky,  looming krans a 
society of animals settled down to sleep.”  

At this point there is indeed no need for Ardrey to repeat the point about  
'self-sacrifice', 'sucidal' or as he prefers 'heroic' and 'altruism'. But  
earlier on he had written:

"to describe such behaviour by the  anthropomorphic term, altruism, is 
dangerous indeed" --

--- (while he  grants that 'heroic' behaviour 'no doubt' I think his word 
is, occurs). 

So it may do to check where Ardrey is coming from that has him saying,  
almost alla Wittgenstein:

"to describe such behaviour by the anthropomorphic term, altruism, is  
dangerous indeed."

The 'indeed' seems to trigger the conversational implicature: 'in the  
deed': SOMEONE has pointed out this before.

In the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on biological altruism, McEvoy and  
Speranza (that's me -- but I'm reading Julius Caesar's "Civil War" and he keeps 
confusingly using the third person to describe himself and adding, "I 
believe",  into the bargan -- "Julius Caesar, I believe [credo], was sure he 
would win")  seem to be disagreeing about the author of the entry in the 
treatment of this.  The possibilities are:

biological altruism-1
psychological altruism-2

The author notes that 'altruism' is MULTIVOCAL. I, with Grice, would think  
is AEQUI-vocal (i.e. has the same ('aequi-') meaning. In any case, if, 
contra  Grice, we could rephrase Ardrey's passage we would have:

"To describe the baboons' behaviour by the PSYCHOLOGICAL term of  
'altruism-2' seems dangerous indeed. We should use 'altruism-1', i.e. 

Surely a pedantic move!

Ardrey does not, I think, term the baboons 'suicidal'. While psychological  
altruism requires the use of 'intention' (unlike 'biological' "altruism",  
allegedly), we need not ascribe a sucidal intention to the baboon. A 
different  strategy (three or four baboons attacking say) and a less insolent 
leopard would  have provided a different outcome -- a lot of chance involved 
here, to echo O.  K's words in a different context). "Heroism" Ardrey does not 
use either with  respect to this case (I think) but the point about it 
seeming 'dangerous indeed'  to use the homo-sapiens range of altruism (if 
how we rephrase Ardrey's  caveat, "to describe such behaviour by the 
anthropomorphic term, altruism, is  dangerous indeed") may remain.

Oddly, there is an online site that reports some Oxford research, pretty  
naive, but there are commentary by readers, and one readers makes a reference 
to  the Marais story (included in "My Friends the Baboons", which should be 
read  alla Aristotle*). The commentary by the reader prompted the original 
reporter to  provide a response, that I think goes along McEvoy's lines -- 
and I bring it to  the forum because it was in response to that point by 
McEvoy on kin-selection  vs. group-selection that prompted Helm to provide the 
baboon story.

The writer notes at


"The big problem with group selection is that there’s just no evidence  for 

"Natural selection only acts on the individual."

"Termite colonies and suicidal baboons are a result of kin selection  
(family members have your genes, so helping them benefits you) rather than a  
selfless community being selected for."

* My reference to "My Friends the baboons" being Aristotelian refers of  
course to Grice's treatment (with Aristotle) of a friend as an alter-ego, 
which  is perhaps at the root of altruism. The magical phrase, 'alter ego', 
seems to  combine egoism and altruism 'in one fell swoop', as Shakespeare would 
put  it.

Same-specific altruism seems one 'animal', cross-specific altruism another: 
as a couple of male baboons sacrificing their lives for Marais, say. There 
should be a reference (or two) about this.

In any case, the baboon example provided by Helm is genial, and I'm hoping  
that anyone who furthers the bibliographical references in the Stanford  
Encyclopedia entry on 'biological altruism and evolutionary theory' should be  
careful to add it to the literature!

And then there's the bonobo*.

(Oddly, while this may be a stretch, but since we are discussing Locke  
versus Wade, the baboon's respect for the tribe's corpses may have a 
"religious"  side to it -- it may relate to Wade's alleged 'faith instinct' as 
in a  cult for ancestry and kin as such as it refers to the afterlife -- or 



Neil Smith,
Language, Bananas and Bonobos: Linguistic Problems, Puzzles and  Polemics
"These sketches by Neil Smith's deft and expert hands provide a wonderful  
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mysteries that offer a persistent challenge to understanding of essential  
elements of human nature." "Neil Smith has not only a profound knowledge of  
current developments in linguistics but also a talent for explaining the 
issues  clearly and approachably." "Smith is a thorough linguist with a sense 
humor.  Readers will find interesting linguistic ideas in small delicate 
amount enough  to induce a linguistic quest for more revealing information. 
This book offers  quick linguistic treats of fresh ideas and key findings in 

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