A primatologist looks at 4chan and reddit, and sees something familiar:
Light from the monitors cast lurid shadows upon their pallid, staring faces as their right hands pumped rhythmically up and down over the F5 key to reload their screens. “I can’t refresh fast enough,” one commenter typed ecstatically, while another announced, “This is the best night of my life!” Many of the men in this online forum attempted to outdo one another by bragging about how many times they had “fapped” that night—a euphemism for masturbation. They went to great lengths to assert their masculinity by insisting how often they had jerked off in front of a screen being watched by other men. Like baboons sitting with their legs spread wide so that passing males could witness their small red phalluses, there was a mixture of sex and status involved in this public display.
Just like baboons, who are aggressive and patriarchal. It causes a kind of despair, unfortunately — is this just human nature, something society is going to be cursed with forever? Are we males afflicted with this wretched Y chromosome that pushes us towards these embarrassing displays? I can’t imagine thinking that bragging about how many times I’ve masturbated would be a good display of my manliness, but these people seem to find their masculinity reaffirmed by hanging out in almost all-male groups and belittling women while boasting about the inability of their personal appeal to keep up with their sex drive. It’s got to be the testosterone, right? They can’t help themselves!
Are humans, like baboons, fixed in their biological natures?
No, it turns out. Even baboons don’t rigidly adhere to the stereotypes, and baboon culture can change rapidly.
Baboons live in a highly patriarchal society in which high-ranking males dominate those males who are subordinate to them. Of all primates, baboons are notorious for the aggressive behavior that males display toward females, and they have been known to viciously attack any who reject their sexual advances. Since male baboons are about twice the size of females and have 2-inch-long canines that they use to eviscerate their opponents, they would seem to justify the assumption that “might is right” in the natural world. But nature is not monolithic. Within every population, whether we are looking at baboons or humans, there is a range of variation in traits. Some individuals are highly aggressive and seek dominance, whereas others are more content to socialize with their peers. These traits become enhanced or reduced based on the environment in which the population lives.
In the early 1980s, a group of olive baboons known as “Forest Troop” underwent a unique natural experiment. The territory of their neighbors, “Garbage Dump Troop,” overlapped with that of a tourist lodge. The Garbage Dump Troop had access to the leftover meat that had been discarded into the lodge’s dump. The most aggressive males from Forest Troop began invading their neighbors’ territory to access the meat for themselves. Soon afterward, tuberculosis ravaged the baboons from both troops who had been feeding at the garbage dump. Because it was only the most aggressive males of Forest Troop that died out, the results were twofold: Less aggressive males were more common in the population, and the female-to-male ratio had now doubled.
The social consequences were startling. According to Stanford University primatologist Robert Sapolsky, who documented the event and followed the troop for the next 20 years, the brutal hierarchy that was common among male baboons disappeared, and the amount of affiliative behaviors—such as males and females grooming one another—increased markedly. What was most surprising was what followed over the intervening years. Males always migrate to other troops at puberty, and new immigrant males to the Forest Troop adopted the local culture that they encountered. Even though none of the original population is alive today, this highly cooperative baboon society remains intact. As Sapolsky wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture.”
Something similar has been found in human societies today. According to a study published this year in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences by Daniel Kruger, Maryanne Fisher, and Paula Wright, there are dramatic differences between societies based on the relative culture of patriarchy. The authors examined demographic data from the World Health Organization, United Nations, CIA World Factbook, and Encyclopedia of World Cultures and found a strong association between female empowerment and the level of early mortality among both women and men. In highly patriarchal societies, men control resources and female sexuality. The outcome of this is that there are increased levels of competition between males that result in higher rates of early death. But when female empowerment is increased, this highly unequal environment is relaxed and aggression against others is reduced. Ultimately, patriarchy hurts men as well as women.
So there’s hope! We just have to infect 4chan and reddit with a virulent strain of tuberculosis, and kill off all the hyper-stupid males.
No, wait, that was the proximate cause in the baboon troop, but there are other methods — like by promoting greater participation by women to increase the female-to-male ratio in benign ways. I think, though, that the existing hyper-stupid males are flourishing in their current environment of excessive sexual display, and are resenting the current invasion of assertive women and more cooperative men, and are conscious that flaunting their machismo by bragging about masturbating to that audience will just make them look pathetic and weak, and so we’re seeing a lot of pushback.
Don’t stop laughing at them, though, and don’t stop resisting them. We can be Forest Troop.
I hadn’t even noticed until it was pointed out in the comments. Forest Troop Baboons. The acronym works for me.