Several days ago I listened to the husband/wife team of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth discuss their book Baboon Metaphysics on NPR’s Fresh Air.  (Terry Gross is the interviewer nonpareil!)  It was a fascinating discussion of the incredibly complex fabric of baboon society. 

  The title was taken from words of Charles Darwin: “Origin of man now proved.  Metaphysic must flourish.  He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.”  Darwin therewith asserts a greater complexity to the mind than Locke’s (and later BF Skinner et al’s) tabla rasa.

  From the book: “Darwin disagreed – both with the conclusion that animals’ thoughts and behavior are entirely based on instinct and with the view that human thought and behavior are governed entirely by reason”.

  For example, brains scans of two day old humans show that they pay more attention to faces than other visual stimuli and focus more intently on speech than other auditory stimuli.  Had to have been in the recipe.

  On the program Ms. Gross played recordings of a variety of baboon vocalizations described as “grunts, screams, and wahoos”.  It was interesting to listen to several different ‘speakers’ in succession.  The voices are distinctly each their own. 

  The information transmitted by the grunts and other utterings is complex and structured.  There is a matriarchic hierarchy to baboon society which can be divined by careful observation of the patterns of the vocalizations. 

  To test their theory the researchers recorded the grunt of a higher ranking female followed by the scream of a subordinate and then played them back in reverse order.  The whole troop was dumbfounded.  Apparently there is no place for an uppity baboon.

  Another interesting aspect of their research was based scatological evidence.  Collecting poop was easier and less intrusive than drawing blood as a means to obtain and evaluate glucocorticoid levels which rise and fall with stress.  When a particular baboon falls victim to a predator those hormone levels rise in each member of the group, but more greatly the closer the relation.  Stress is also evidenced in the friendless.  And furthermore the hormone levels fell when estranged family members were observed to be reintegrated as apparent acts of compassion.

  From their research, Cheney and Seyfarth extrapolated two conclusions regarding baboon metaphysics, brains, and evolution.  “First, natural selection often creates brains that are highly specialized.  Arctic terns migrate each year from one end of the earth to another, ants navigate across the Sahara, bees dance to signal the location of food….Yet… there is no evidence that [they] are generally more intelligent than other species…. they are more like nature’s idiots savants…”

  Secondly that “The domain of expertise for baboons – and indeed all monkeys and apes – is social life”.  And it sure sounds like the grunts, screams, and wahoos hold it together.

  Which, uh, brings me to Robert Frost.  In the December 4 New York Review of Books an article about Frost shows that he too thought that: “the brute noises of our human throat…were all our meaning before words stole in”.

  In fact, his theory was that the essence of effective poetry is to be found in “sentence sounds”. * “It is everything in the sound of poetry; but not as inventor or creator – simply as summoner”.**

  The author of one of the reviewed books, Mark Richardson, “notes the Darwinian drift” of Frost’s thinking.  He also mentioned that Frost had been influenced by Herbert Spencer’s observation: “variations of voice are the physiological results of variations in feeling”. 

  My wife knows just what is going on (and what course of action to take) by noticing if I’m grunting, or screaming, or wahooing.  Heck, so did my dog.  She would hide whenever she heard me grab my tool belt.

  Baboons are very distant relatives.  We humans took the path less traveled by – left the jungle long ago.  Lived in caves for a while.  Learned how to emote in many different languages.  Still are social creatures.  Sure will be interesting to see how, having added nuance to our grunting and howling, our “sentence sounds” will evolve through keyboards, flat screens, and emoticons.

NB It dawned on me that I had hidden (well, lost) somewhere at home a recording of Robert Frost reading some of his own poetry.  Took me a while to find it.  Longer still (and a few grunts) to coax the turntable into cooperation.   Compelling to listen to his intonation of Fire and Ice.  And to remember Kennedy’s inauguration while listening to Frost read his The Gift Outright: 

The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.  She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright.
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward.
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

* In the 12/11 Economist Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney describes his own speech patterns as “Phonetic grunting”.

**cf “The repetitive pattern of his picking seems to procure the rasp of his voice like hot firing synapses do obsessive thought” in Freewheelin’ above: 6-6-08



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