In 1992, biology professor Dorothy Cheney and psychology professor Robert Seyfarth set up camp on the savanna of Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve. With graduate students and postdocs, the wife-and-husband team followed a group of Chacma baboons for years, recording data on details of daily living. The researchers also devised ingenious experiments that probed how thoroughly the animals understood the kin relations that structure their group. Cheney and Seyfarth tell the story of this field research in their book Baboon Metaphysics.
“Our fieldwork suggests that the crucial thing baboon brains have evolved to deal with is other baboons,” Seyfarth observes. “This is beginning to tell us something about the evolution of human intelligence.” Baboons and humans share a common ancestry that parted down different evolutionary pathways about 30 million years ago. “Long before we got language and long before we started using tools, we had social relationships. And we had them because we needed them to survive. That placed great selective pressure on individuals to think and reason about the society in which they live.” And that primitive parsing of social relationships tells us a little about the origins of our own knack for sorting and classifying and making connections – and stringing sounds into sentences.
This video features Cheney and Seyfarth discussing their research, along with images from the savanna.