Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Congressional Medal of Honor

In every naturalist’s book, after pages of beautiful pictures and chapters full of incident in which animals show off their fascinating personalities, the chapter comes, usually the final chapter, in which the naturalist, in ominous, regretful or worried tones, tells the reader that the natural world about which they have read so much, empathized with, thrilled to, is being destroyed. It won’t last the decade, the century, maybe not the month. And it’s because of People Like You, Dear Reader – Humans are bringing the world to the brink. Soon our impoverished, crippled, human-crowded world will wobble its lonesome big brain around a star indifferent to the cesspool its third planet has become. And then we, too, will destroy ourselves.

I always read that dang last chapter. I should just skip it.

In pop science books there’s typically a point at which the author declares Only Man Is Capable Of … you know, Only Man Can Cry, Only Man Can Sympathize, Only Man Can Laugh, Only Man Makes Tools, Only Man Prays to God, etc, & so on.

In an essay in In Search of Nature E.O. Wilson offers up one of the most qualified Only Man statements that I’ve seen:

“I doubt if any higher animal, such as a hawk or a baboon, has ever deserved a Congressional Medal of Honor according to the ennobling criteria used in our society.”

The Congressional Medal of Honor bit refers to the suicidal altruism of, say, the men who “threw themselves on top of grenades to shield comrades.” Now, it doesn’t seem likely that a baboon has ever thrown itself on a grenade for the benefit of anybody else, does it?

Considering how few people have thrown themselves on grenades for any reason – benefit of others, lark, loss of balance – one might suspect that the typical observer of human behavior wouldn’t be witness to that event either. Sure, we read about this sort of heroism in our newspapers (suicide bombers are not so dissimilar or that guy who throws himself into frigid water to save a drowning kid), but have you ever actually seen it?

Wilson’s assertion depends on generalizing from the observations of baboons (& hawks) we’ve been privileged to make ourselves (or read about). But observers, even trained ones, don’t always understand what they are seeing, so what they note may not be what’s really happening. And they leave shit out – there’s ample evidence for homosexual behavior (& other nonprocreative sex) among nonhuman animals but until recently you left it out of your paper, otherwise you threatened your career (only gays saw gay sex in the wild and gays didn’t get tenure).

But reading Wilson’s statement immediately brought to mind an instance of Congressional Medal of Honor worthy behavior by a baboon. Robert Sapolsky writes about it in his A Primate’s Memoir. Sapolsky was a naturalist who watched baboons in Africa. One day he saw something thrilling – it was, he emphasized, very unbaboonlike behavior. A lion caught the baboon troop with its guard down. Everybody bolted – every baboon for itself. Mamas, of course, grabbed their babies, but that was about it in the altruism department. Or that would be what Sapolsky usually saw. This time two youngsters too young to climb on their own were trapped at the foot of a tree while the lion closed in. All the adult baboons screamed from their perches. Then one adult male baboon, who, so far as Sapolsky knew, was not closely related to either of the babies, leapt in front of the lion, roaring, puffing himself up, throwing up dust, making himself as big and fierce-looking as he could. No match for a grown lion, but it did give the lion pause. Maybe, after all, the lion wasn’t that hungry. A nice snack of baboon baby, sure, but … something worth fighting over?

Everybody survived that encounter. But it’s probably not something you’re going to see again. Not because it will never happen again. But because nobody’s going to be watching.

Or because we’ll have wiped out all the baboons, I suppose. And the lions. Not to mention the hawks.

By the way, in the essay E.O. Wilson goes on to describe frequently observed suicidal altruism in colony insects (ants, bees). Maybe we’re more like ants than like baboons, anyway.

3 comments:

David Lee said...

How funny. That baboon was the first thing I thought of after I read the Wilson quote.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

What, no Congressional Medal of Honor-worthy hawk behavior came to mind?

David Lee said...

I haven't read many accounts of bird behavior. I hear ravens steal less from family members than they do from unrelated birds but that's not exactly medal worthy. Or maybe it would be for a raven.