If baboons can behave, so can middle schoolers

In my previous article, it was explained that in the latter days of elementary school, children begin sorting themselves out by sex and forming separate social hierarchies. Traits such as toughness and athletic ability enable boys to rise to the top of their hierarchies. Girls can rise to the top of their hierarchies as a result of traits such as good looks, their ability to attract high-ranking boys and their family’s social status. In short, children and teenagers form ridged hierarchies that are based primarily on physical prowess and material wealth.

Children and teenagers that lack these traits often become victims of relentless bullying and are swiftly pushed to the bottom of the social order, often ending up socially isolated regardless of any other redeeming traits they may possess. Studies have found that it is often the “cool” kids that engage in much of the bullying and they do so to demonstrate to an audience of their peers that they can dominate.

This is disturbing because similar patters of behavior can be observed among nonhuman primates. Olive baboons provide an excellent example.

Olive baboons live in large troops containing as many as 100 individuals and, as is the case with many social animals, there are aggressive pecking orders formed within their troops, especially among the males. The male hierarchy consists of older and stronger males occupying dominant positions and younger as well as less athletic males occupying subordinate positions. Those at the top of the hierarchy carry out the bulk of the matings with the females and basically rule the troop. Females will form pecking orders as well.

The subordinate baboons are second-class citizens and are often socially isolated. This system is enforced and maintained by bullying behaviors such as lunges, chases and biting. Dominant males generally bully low-ranking males as a way of showing off their dominance. They do not behave in this manner because they have self-esteem problems. They behave this way because they are in a superior position and their biological instincts command that they maintain their superior position.

All of this ensures that the older males, who have been socially skilled and are strong enough to escape predators, disease and other dangers for a long period of time, get to pass on their genes to the next generation.

Many children and teens appear to be acting on a similar biological impulse. However, in the modern world (and even hundreds of years ago) physical prowess among humans has a limited value. Nature has not caught up and many human beings are still acting on this impulse, creating much stress for other human beings.

In mammals, responses to stress are regulated by a pair of glands known as the adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys.

When someone is experiencing a low level of stress over a long period of time, such as a stressful month at the office, or constant harassment from a menacing classmate, the outer portion of the adrenal glands will release extra amounts of stress hormones called glucocorticoids, which include a hormone known as cortisol. Glucocorticoids function to elevate blood glucose levels and prepare the body for fight or flight. Under optimal conditions, the stressful situation ends and the glucocorticoid levels drop.

However, a consistent amount of stress over a long period of time can result in glucocorticoids being constantly elevated beyond their normal parameters. This can be dangerous, as large amounts of stress hormones released over long periods of time will accelerate the aging process, which can lead to any number of health problems.

Glucocorticoid levels are often measured by wildlife biologists as a way of monitoring stress levels in wild animals and this has been done with olive baboons.

Among olive baboons within stable dominance hierarchies, dominant males generally have low resting levels of glucocorticoids because of the high level of control they have over their social interactions. Dominants also tend to have an elevated glucocorticoid response to stress.

Subordinate males on the other hand, because of the lack of control they have over their social interactions and the high levels of harassment from dominant males they have to endure generally, end up with high resting glucocorticoid levels and a blunted glucocorticoid response to stressors.

Their blunted glucocorticoid response to stress might be the result of a loss of sensitivity to their high resting levels of glucocorticoids in their bodies. Obviously, being in such a situation for a long period of time does not create good chances of a long and prosperous life.

Researchers are beginning to measure the cortisol levels of bullied children and so far it has been found that they have stress hormone issues similar to that of subordinate baboons. One British study involving identical twins (twins are often separated in schools in Britain) where one twin was bullied and the other was not, found that the bullied twin always had a blunted cortisol response to stressful situations.

Another study showed that verbal bullying resulted in lower secretions of cortisol than physical bullying. Indeed, chronically bullied kids often develop health problems and depression later on in life as a result of the stress that they had to endure.

If your child is being chronically bullied, get him or her on an exercise program. Hard exercise will help burn these stress hormones out of their system and the exercise program should, for obvious reasons, have an emphasis on building upper body strength. This may spare them a lot of health problems in the long run.

Also noteworthy, a curious culture developed in one baboon troop that defied the textbook norm. A typical troop of baboons began feeding at a garbage dump that contained tuberculosis-tainted meat. The aggressive males that monopolized this food source simply died. When these males were out of the picture the entire nature of the baboon troop abruptly changed.

There were still dominants and subordinates as before, however the bullying behavior largely disappeared and was replaced by high levels of grooming behavior. When fights did break out, it was usually between males that were close in rank. The dominant males were much more tolerant of low-ranking males and, as they became more tolerant of low-ranking males, they became less abusive toward the females as well. Every baboon in the troop was enjoying less stress, better health, and likely worked as a team much more effectively, probably enhancing the chances of the survival of the troop as a whole.

What’s more is that this relatively peaceful baboon culture continued to maintain itself for a long period of time. When young newcomer males arrived from more violent troops, it typically took them only six months to learn that in order to be accepted within this new troop, they had to be nice.

If a troop of wild baboons can learn such behavior on its own accord, then why can’t today’s middle schoolers? After all, we human beings are capable of ethical reasoning that far exceeds that of any primate.

It is not rare for school athletes, whom bullied kids often report as being their worst tormentors, to be given preferential treatment by school administrators. This must stop. If school administrators can keep their biggest and strongest boys under their thumb, or better yet, get some of them to act as anti-bullying police, then the social environments of entire schools might transform into something better.

Kevin Reichling is a biological science technician who performs invasive plant control. He lives in Boulder City and can be reached at krwoodland@yahoo.com.