Legendary Monkey-man Robert Sapolsky Has Lots to Teach Us About Ourselves and Our Close Hairy Relatives

Tue Dec 31 2019

Stressful Situations

Robert Sapolsky – where to start? This is one interesting dude! He received his B.A. in anthropology from Harvard University in 1978, and he’s been blowing our minds ever since. Between studying baboons in their natural habitat in the African bush and doing cutting-edge laboratory work in the US, he has tons to teach us.

After graduating from Harvard, Sapolsky spent the subsequent 20 years or so in Kenya, closely studying troops of baboons. Legend has it that he gave each baboon a name from The Old Testament. Anyway, what interested him the most was the social structure of the baboon troops. Particularly, he wanted to find out about the connection between social status and stress levels of the various Ruths and Isaacs amongst the troop.

Let’s now have some fun, get knee-deep into some science, and have a closer look at what Sapolsky researches and writes about.

Most mammals (and many birds and reptiles) suffer from stress. All animals, including us hairy bipeds, are designed to respond to stressful situations. If you suspect there’s a hungry lion lurking around the corner, your brain starts sending all sorts of “emergency chemicals” through your system. These are to get you ready to take quick action by, probably, running for your life.

This is a basic survival mechanism that we have in common with most other animals. Here’s the kicker though: chameleons and eagles, for example, don’t have to worry about making their next mortgage payment. Bills are a source of stress that emerges from the organization of our society.

In addition to getting all stressed out about our material well-being, we also stress about our own place within the social structures of society. No one wants to be an outcast or social pariah. We are all looking for a comfy foothold in the social fabric. Why do you think teenagers go through so much grief when trying to fit in? And why are they so distraught when they have trouble doing so?

The answer to these questions is rooted in our biology and evolutionary history. So don’t be so hard on the next teenager that insists on buying new jeans that are already shredded. So, we saw that pretty much all animals, not just us, suffer from stress. Now let’s have a look at how, in terms of stress, baboons are surprisingly similar to us.

It Runs in the Family

Baboons, and many other primates, have striking similarities to us. They have hands with opposable thumbs, they are intelligent, and we even share 94% of their DNA. Wow. And most important for the context of this article, their societies are structured in a remarkably human-like way. There’s a boss at the top of the pecking order. Every subsequent baboon in the hierarchy is subordinate to the one above him or her.

The higher up in the hierarchy, the more privileges you have in terms of grooming rights, choosing mates, and getting food. This is how our societies have been structured for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years. The king has always had the first pick of grub, clothes, and partners. Only now, within the last few hundred years are things starting to change.

How does this relate to stress? Well, by taking blood samples from his baboons, and then later analyzing them in the lab, Sapolsky discovered something amazing. The lower the baboon is in the hierarchy, the more stress hormones he/she has running through him/her.

Researchers, over the years, have concluded that people in lower socio-economic echelons, unfortunately, suffer from higher stress levels. This directly correlates with Sapolsky’s baboons. Think about how human that is. But it makes sense, as both us and baboons share a not-so-distant relative in the tree of life.

In describing the striking similarities between us and baboons, this article is by no means exhaustive. We suggest that when you’re done monkeying around, you check out some of Sapolsy’s profound work. We promise you will not be disappointed!