Babooon Metaphysics

by Christine Skolnik

Splashing around lately in object-oriented philosophy I’m reminded of Cheney and Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics.  Object-oriented ecology is inspired by object-oriented philosophy and, more specifically, object-oriented ontology (O3), which attempt to view objects as mere objects (in the superlative sense), radically outside of ourselves and our perceptual apparatus.  O3 also strives to understand how objects interact with other objects apart from our perceptions of and interactions with them, and apart from the particular meaning, significance, or usefulness they hold for humanity.[1]

Object-oriented ecology might be an antidote for both old-school, resource-greedy attitudes toward nature and self-negating, yet self-absorbed, deep ecology.  Without going into unnecessary detail, old-school views of nature privilege the human being as a self-justified, imperious subject wielding wondrous technologies in order to extract value from the environment.  Deep ecology, conversely, is invested in de-centering the human, though its very objections and abjections can be interpreted as a form of narcissism.  The guilt and shame of deep ecology may arise from a sense of superiority: the responsibilities of a unique subject among common objects.  In either case it does not follow that only human beings can solve the problem.  Shouldn’t the mess we’ve made serve as a proof of our basic incompetence as environmental stewards?

Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind chronicles a robust study of baboon behavior in “the wild” and in human cultural contexts.[2]  The book describes the very complex social hierarchies of baboon society and equally complex interactions between baboons of various tribes and ranks.  It also presents anecdotes from sources in southern African villages of baboon goat herds with an uncanny ability to care for “their” goats.  Though a baboon herd might assert itself obnoxiously by riding home from work on the back of a large goat, it also shows great understanding of and care for “its” wards.  One such baboon was a particularly enthusiastic and compassionate steward.  When a kid separated from its mother during milking vocalized distress, for example, the baboon not only identified which bleating kid belonged to which mother (beyond the capacity of its human coworkers) but insistently tried to reunite the family by carrying the kid to its mother.   (The book includes a number of compelling and charming photographs.)  Cheney and Seyfarth explain that this capacity to understand kinship structures in the goat community is a reflection of the baboon’s ability to map the complex hierarchical family structures within its own community.  Cries of goat distress, furthermore, motivate the responsible baboon to rectify an obvious social ill.[3]

Though this narrative is anthropocentric in many ways, what may be of interest to object-oriented ecology is that baboons and goats are interacting in a manner that is outside of human knowledge and interest.  The capacity for “empathy” in the baboon is not uncanny because it is so human, but because it is more than human.  Animal to animal interaction and communication here goes beyond what is generally perceived as unconscious, self-serving symbiosis to something complexly social.

At the risk of getting more rhetorical mileage out of anthropocentric figures, I’d like also to cite instances of a baboon driving an ox wagon and working as a signalman.  The authors present a brief case study of a baboon entrusted to drive goat milk to market on an ox cart.  In a second career the same baboon was recruited to help a paraplegic signalman.   The signalman trained the baboon to shift a heavy lever to change “signals” (redirect train tracks) according to a specific number of blasts from an approaching train.  The baboon was soon able to perform the correct operation at the right moment with no input from the signalman, but the human supervisor remained on duty out of a sense of propriety.[4]  Yes, we are amazed at baboons aping humans, but in this case the baboons are not merely performing–they are replacing humans and indeed besting them in some ways.

The baboon anecdotes foreground human dominance and control as an illusion.  When a baboon rides a goat home from work the joke is on human culture.  These sorts of images de-center the human, undermine the uniqueness of human culture, and call into question the inextricably bound pride and shame of the “beautiful soul.”[5]  They also foreground human perceptual limitations.  The baboon herd’s uncanny capacity to match goat kids with their mothers illustrates that its modes of perception are unique and uniquely useful to the other species (against the interests of the human proprietor, predictably focused on milking nature).  In this case the baboon is not mimicking human attitudes.  Rather the interaction illustrates baboon ways of being with goat being.  So too the baboon and the oxen, going about their business independently of a human agent or witness.  Certainly human interests broker the relationship, but we could also be reminded that “this sort of thing” happens in various other contexts.  Animals and plants, generally, go about their business with one another quite apart from our interaction with them.

Finally, the baboon and the signalman.  I’m provoked by the figure of the supervisor overseeing his more competent employee here.  It suggests to me that human beings have risen to the level of their own incompetence as environmental stewards.  And this thought prompts a series of related questions.  Can we recruit animals and other life forms to help us solve the ecological crisis we have created? [6]  Can we move beyond “reading” the environment, beyond recruiting nature for our established interests (to solve problems as we have already defined them), to a more ecologically intelligent partnership with non-human life?  And what would a more humble position vis-à-vis animals and as animals interacting with other animals allow us to see or be?


[1] For quick introductions to object-oriented ecology see Levi Bryant’s blog post “Object-Oriented Ecology” at http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/object-oriented-ecology-2/ and Tom Morton’s Adam Robbert’s post by the same name at  http://knowledge-ecology.com/object-oriented-ecology/.  On O3 in general I recommend Levi Bryant’s article “The Ontic Principle: Outline of and Object Oriented Ontology” and his book The Democracy of Objects, both available on line.  I also recommend anything by Tim Morton . . . am particularly fond of “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology” (online).   Also keep an eye out for Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, forthcoming in early in 2012.

[2] Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics: the Evolution of a Social Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[3] Cheney and Seyfarth, 31-34, 273, 274.

[4] Cheney and Seyfarth, 29-31.

[5] See Timothy Morton’s “Beautiful Soul Syndrome” available as a PDF online.

[6] This is, perhaps, an oblique reference, but see Stephen Mueke’s “The Cassowary is Indifferent to all This” at http://www.rhizomes.net/issue15/muecke.html.  I’m particularly interested in pursuing the implications of The Dreaming for object-oriented ecology.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Babooon Metaphysics

  1. Adam Robbert

    Great post! I just wanted to make a slight correction — the OOE post you cited as Tim Morton’s is actually mine (Adam Robbert). It is of course heavily inspired by Morton’s thinking (I use and cite it through out the essay). I just wanted to allay any confusion that might ensue.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Pingback: Environmental Critique on OOE « Knowledge Ecology

  3. Pingback: Environmental Critique on Object-Oriented Ecology « Larval Subjects .

  4. If I can push you just slightly further, maybe we should use oxen or goat studies of baboons instead of the human scientific studies you quote (which inevitably serve the interests of the human proprieter). Because we really need to de-centre the human.

    • Christine Skolnik

      Touche . . . still, it is primatology by primates.

      Re. “The contest for primate nature: daughters of man-the-hunter in the field 1960-1980,”

      Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

  5. @Christine: I really love this post and the power of the idea it presents! Would you be interested in tweeting about it (!) at The Swedish Twitter University (!!)? Read more: http://svtwuni.wordpress.com/the-concept/

    Oh, and everyone with great ideas are welcome!

  6. Wonderful. That de-centered feeling we get thinking about baboons riding goats is a feeling we can trust is, I believe, your main point. Here we find a structure of feeling we can follow, a line of flight away from our own totalizing tendencies and the mortal threat they represent to our own species. Thanks for posting…!

  7. Randall Honold

    Should baboons be held partly responsible for climate change, I wonder?

  8. Response to DE critics:

    Inspired and generally sympathetic to Deep Ecology I’ve been surprised, of late, how often it is represented as both politically radical and conservative. My post certainly isn’t innocent or entirely earnest rhetorically (re.DE as straw man), but Deep Ecology should own its political legacy, created and troubled by its own rhetoric.

    Christine Skolnik

  9. Pingback: Language, Instinct, Ecology (Metro Dogs) | environmental critique

  10. Pingback: SLSA After Biopolitics Abstract: How We Look at Species | environmental critique

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