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Baboon Metaphysics

Margaux Kearney's picture

In Baboon Metaphysics, primatologists Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth explore the behavior and vocalizations of a group of wild baboons in Botswana’s Okavango Delta in order to achieve a better understanding of primates’ social structure. As they observed, baboons live in groups of up to 150 individuals including eight or nine matrilineal families of females and several male figures. Because of these sheer numbers, baboons must form both short term bonds for mating and more lasting attachments that allow cooperative child rearing based on individual needs and status. As they try to understand whether baboons really understand kinship relations, how they guess  each other’s intentions and motives, and how they do use vocal communication, the authors end up drawing a vibrant picture of the social interactions that lie beneath these primates’ collective organization.

While the preliminary chapters of the book offer a basic introduction to baboons’ habitat, behavior, and social structure, the subsequent sections provide an in depth explanation of baboons’ familiarity with each other, investigate their own mental self-awareness, and the meaning of their vocalizations, finally offering the authors’ conclusions about the evolution of language. In order to shed light on primates’ perception of their surroundings, Cheney and Seyfarth refer to an extensive series of play back experiments performed at their field site or carried out by researchers on monkeys and apes. Even though it leads to Baboon Metaphysics becoming a little repetitive and hard to follow as it constantly prods into unfamiliar territory, this compilation helps us to reflect on humans’ place in the universe and what makes them so unique.

What struck me the most when reading about baboons and their social interactions was the concept of a theory of mind. Cheney and Seyfarth define this proposal as “a theory, because unlike behavior, mental states are not observable, although they can be used to make predictions about behavior” (1). It is very interesting to realize that mental states are always shaped by external influences, be it an animate object or another mental state. A theory of mind therefore not only allows us to understand others better, but also allows unequivocal access to our own mental states. Introspection provides an opportunity for humans not only to travel into the past, but also to project themselves into the future. This issue of whether animals are also able to experience “episodic memory” is, however, a continual debate.

Within the theory of mind developed by Cheney and Seyfarth, the analogy between baboons and young children is particular remarkable. As they remind us, children the age of four have difficulty recognizing that another person’s beliefs can be different from their own and at variance with reality (1). In other words, as discussed in class, children struggle to recognize that reality is what we see it is. Their ability to attribute mental states to others only develops over time. It has been noted, on the other side, by researchers that baboons and other primates often behave as if they attribute mental states to other individuals. It is believed, however, that their behavior can simply be explained in terms of relatively simply learned behavioral contingencies. Instead of analyzing beliefs and desires, animals rather use past performances as a guide to future behavior (1). Cheney and Seyfarth suggest that humans have a theory of mind due to the enlargement of specific areas of the brain (especially the prefrontal cortex). Similar neuroanatomical evidence, they point out, sheds some light on the fact that primates, like young children, might be able to represent simple mental states like emotions and intentions even if they cannot make sense of knowledge and beliefs (1). 

This observation in turn brings up the issue of self awareness and consciousness. The ability to attribute mental states to others would seem in some respects to require some level of self awareness. Evidence supporting the existence of consciousness in animals is sparse, as researchers have not yet succeeded in compiling sufficient data to explain animals’ understanding of others’ mental states. It is possible that animals may not be capable of mental time traveling involved in episodic memory and metacognition. As Cheney and Seyfarth remark, philosophers have debated the role and existence of consciousness in human thinking for decades and still have not been able to come up with an agreeable definition. Humphrey (1986) speculated that consciousness evolved to allow us to predict the behavior of others “on the basis of introspection about our own motives, thoughts, and beliefs” (1). In class, we described self awareness as an internal state involving several different stages. This led us to further question whether we believed self awareness was in itself a benefit. One has to take into consideration the fact that self-awareness may allow humans to experience certain gratifications unreachable to other animals, but it also brings along difficult challenges such as the agonizing over good and evil. I would therefore have liked to further investigate in class the role of consciousness and self awareness, both in humans and animals, in order to better understand the complex mechanisms underlying them.

The many issues raised in Baboon Metaphysics finally bring additional questions to mind. Like Cheney and Seyfarth, I am particularly interested in the way monkeys recognize kinship relations among other group members. Does a monkey, for instance, categorize each member of the group according to a simple “sister” or “mother” classification or do they evaluate others’ relationships based on their rates of interaction? Furthermore, why is it that baboon mothers often show a surprising lack of concern for their offspring’s anxiety and distress during water crossings or at other times of separation? Could the it be that as the mother is not herself separated from the group, she cannot recognize that her infant is isolated?  

Baboon Metaphysics is a captivating account of baboons’ social interactions and the way they see themselves in nature. Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth write their book with practiced skill for both a scientific and general audience. Vivid photographs are included to help visualize the events taking place in the Botswana Okavango Delta or other field sites, and give a face to the baboons under study. I have no doubt that such work will prompt more playback experiments to be conducted in the future to help unravel the puzzle of social cognition and intelligence in animals.  Researchers will then be one step closer to forming a scientific opinion that is “less wrong.”  


  (1). Cheney, Dorothy L. and Robert M. Seyfarth. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.