PW: Your specialty is neuroscience. Why have you spent more than 20 years studying social behavior among baboons, as you relate in A Primate's Memoir?
RS: It's more fun than watching neurons growing in a petri dish. I study stress-related disease and its effects on the brain. Baboons, who are like humans in lots of ways and subject to a lot of the same stress-related diseases, don't have all the lifestyle confounds that would screw up a good scientific study on humans. They're all relatively healthy, they all exercise, they don't eat a lot of fat, they don't smoke, they don't drink.
PW: What surprised you most about the baboons you studied?
RS: I expected social rank to be the determining factor in health, and in some ways that's true. But far more important is what sort of society that rank occurs in. Being low ranking in a benevolent troop is a hell of a lot better for your blood pressure than being low ranking in an aggressive troop.
PW: Does this suggest that human societies can organize themselves to exacerbate or mitigate stress?
RS: Absolutely. You don't want to end up telling somebody who's homeless or a refugee that stress is all perceptual, because it sure isn't in those cases. But most of us have fairly neurotic middle-class stressors. And in a weird way, baboons do as well. They only have to work three hours a day for their calories, and they use most of their free time generating social stress for each other, just like us. But traffic jams and mortgages and rotten relationships would make no sense at all to your average animal in the wild. They're cultural inventions of ours, and we certainly have the potential to keep them in perspective.
PW: Over the years, you've seen social change accelerating in East Africa. How will this affect cultural survival for traditional peoples?
RS: If any tribes are going to be Westernizing more slowly, it'll be people like the Masai. They've been nomadic pastoralists for millennia and are very good at taking bits and pieces of the culture around them without losing a sense of who they are. But it's also true that Masai warriors have made much of their living by plundering neighboring tribes. What's the solution? Government fiats are a cultural sledgehammer. There's got to be something in between. In A Primate's Memoir, I not-very-facetiously suggest Masai Olympics that would include meaningfully dangerous events that would let young warriors demonstrate their skills in productive ways and wouldn't amputate aspects of their culture overnight.
PW: Do you think Westernization is exacerbating such problems, or can it help solve them?
RS: It depends a lot on what you consider a good outcome. People no longer running around with their rear ends uncovered counts as one version, especially for missionaries. People buying Westernized products, like pesticides, is another. Or people reading Shakespeare in Swahili. On the other hand, in an awful lot of those places, education just means taking kids out of their traditional culture and basically teaching them to be ashamed of who they are and where they've come from.
PW: What does your current research involve?
RS: My original troop experienced a terribly traumatic event, and a new troop emerged that has a very different style, with much less aggression and much more social affiliation. And the amazing thing is, they're passing on those traits to new members of the troop. Primatologists these days are very excited about culture, and this is definitely a case of cultural transmission. I'm trying to learn how these cultural traits are transmitted to the next generation. And given that this makes for a troop that has a lot less aggression than a typical bunch of baboons, are these animals healthier? Do they have fewer stress-related diseases?