Spoofing baboons

Nicholas Wade profiles the work of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth in this article, "How Baboons Think (Yes, Think)."

Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth have summed up their new cycle of research in a book titled, after Darwin's comment, "Baboon Metaphysics." Their conclusion, based on many painstaking experiments, is that baboons' minds are specialized for social interaction, for understanding the structure of their complex society and for navigating their way within it.
The shaper of a baboon's mind is natural selection. Those with the best social skills leave the most offspring.
"Monkey society is governed by the same two general rules that governed the behavior of women in so many 19th-century novels," Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth write. "Stay loyal to your relatives (though perhaps at a distance, if they are an impediment), but also try to ingratiate yourself with the members of high-ranking families."

In other words, Jane Austen would be right at home. I suppose they could have chosen baboons for a "reality" series instead of meerkats, if baboons didn't live so long. It seems like the meerkat deaths generate much of the drama.

The article describes their recent work, playing back sounds at controlled intervals to try to establish when baboons are using social cognition of various flavors.

In some of their playback experiments, Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth have tested baboons' knowledge of where everyone stands in the hierarchy. In a typical interaction, a dominant baboon gives a threat grunt, and its inferior screams. From their library of recorded baboon sounds, the researchers can fabricate a sequence in which an inferior baboon's threat grunt is followed by a superior's scream.
Baboons pay little attention when a normal interaction is played to them but show surprise when they hear the fabricated sequence implying their social world has been turned upside down.

If they were computers, this would be known as "spoofing." I suppose if they strung together all their wild vocalizations at once, it would be like a Denial of Service attack. Anyway, I think the computer network analogy is helpful -- Cheney and Seyfarth attempt to discover the workings of each node by watching its reactions to various inputs.

The difficulty of field research continues to be the researchers' inability to set up replicated trials of a given sequence of events, and for this reason field primatology has been primarily descriptive. Cheney and Seyfarth mess around with their animals more than most field researchers are willing to do; that provides the opportunity to test certain kinds of hypotheses, but alters the animals' behavior in the process -- precisely why many researchers hesitate to conduct similar playback experiments.

But unlike many other primates, these baboons are not threatened, and their population is healthy. So spoof 'em.