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Published: Thursday, 5/13/2004

Kinder and gentler baboons

TWENTY years ago, the alpha males in a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya fought a vicious war with the baboons of a neighboring tribe. The prize was a tourist lodge garbage dump. What the "winners" couldn't have known, or even comprehended, was that the meat they fought over was tainted with bovine tuberculosis.

Soon, the monkey bars of the sweet hereafter were full of confused baboons who had won the battle but lost the evolutionary war. The tribe's less aggressive males survived the tuberculosis outbreak. Being too low on the totem pole to eat the rancid spoils of war saved their lives.

According to a newly published study in a biology journal, the passivity of the surviving males became the dominant ethos. The kinder, gentler baboons became the heirs of a healthy tribe of women and children, but instead of lording it over them, they became model husbands and leaders. Biting and threats were out. Mutual grooming and affection between the sexes was in.

It was as if Alan Alda, Phil Donahue, and Mister Rogers had moved into the neighborhood all at once. Dubbed "The Forest Troop" by the scientists who monitor them, the peace-loving baboons are going strong two decades after their experiment in communal give-and-take.

Despite its "alternative lifestyle," the Forest Troop continues to thrive in a world of aggressive baboon tribes. Scientists don't know how long the peaceable kingdom can last, but in this pocket of the Kenyan savanna the law of the jungle isn't what it used to be.

Is there a lesson for higher primates in the Forest Troop study? Definitely, even though drawing analogies about the behavior of such widely disparate species is risky business.

We humans may be higher on nature's intellectual pecking order, but we could learn a trick or two from our primate cousins in Kenya. They're thriving because they gave peace a chance.

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