02 April 2006

Multicultural baboons

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford with a long-standing interest in primatology has written a thoughtful article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs (of all places). In the piece, he describes a remarkable social phenomenon observed in a troop of Savannah baboons in Kenya. Normally, about half of the male members of the troop are very aggressive and the other half more social - a version of the storied alpha male phenomenon. When a tourist lodge expanded its territory into one occupied by this particular troop, they became rather adept at pilfering food from the garbage dump. Soon thereafter an epidemic of tuberculosis swept through the troop, with the infection apparently caused by some tainted garbage. Because the most aggressive males had preferential access to the food they were also preferentially affected, and this caused a sea change in the behavior of the troop as a whole: the aggressive males died quickly and the few remaining males were markedly less aggressive and more social. Despite the fact that more than 20 years have elapsed and all of the Savannah baboons that were alive during the tuberculosis event have died, the "Garbage Dump" troop remains highly social today, in stark contrast to other troops of Savannah baboons in the area.

This phenomenon is even more remarkable when one considers the mating behavior of Savannah baboons. As with many species, Savannah baboons exchange members between troops, an adaptation that presumably reduces inbreeding. But the social rules are quite precise: juvenile males leave their troop and join neighboring troops, working their way through the hierarchy of the new community. One would expect that about half of the males that joined the Garbage Dump troop would be aggressive and the other half social. Yet twenty years later, the entire troop remains highly social, suggesting that the newcomers adopted the social mores of the local group.

Apparently, a similar experiment has been going on in the Netherlands, except in reverse, and with tragic consequences. Writing in the New Yorker, Jane Kramer describes the approach that Holland has taken to multiculturalism, something called the "pillar model". A solution to the fighting between the Catholics and Protestants in the seventeenth century, the pillar model allows each group to manage its own affairs, with separate neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, and even state-supported media. The model worked well as tolerant Holland managed its affairs from the Enlightenment into the modern age, and by the twentieth century the country was essentially divided into Catholic, Protestant and humanist pillars.

The wrinkle appears to have come with the wave of recruitments from Turkey and Morocco that began in the 1960s. Rather than integrate these newcomers into Dutch society, the pillar model was applied, allowing the growing Muslim population to not only continue to maintain their religious and cultural heritage, but essentially walling them off from Dutch society at large. The experiment is now widely viewed as a dismal failure, defined perhaps most vividly by the murder of the provocateur Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a young Dutch-Moroccan fanatic who, incensed by the filmmaker's scurrilous depiction of Islam in his film Submission, shot van Gogh eight times, repeatedly slit his throat and then pinned a long diatribe to his chest with a knife.

Surely the abominable socioeconomic conditions of Dutch Muslims contributes to the problems that Holland is experiencing, but the concept of the pillar society plays a role as well. It is here that the story of the Garbage Dump troop of Savannah baboons is informative: cultural integration is an entirely normal occurrence, and probably needs to be achieved on some level if multicultural societies are to live in harmony. Certainly, tolerant societies must be respectful of cultural and religious diversity, and the heritage that immigrants bring to multicultural societies imbue them with vibrancy. At the same time, it is imperative that when social groups with different cultural backgrounds live together, efforts are made to bridge the inevitable gaps between them. Societies that ignore the lessons of the Dutch experiment do so at their peril.

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1 comment:

Calvin Jones said...

Hello All,
Since i joined Green Bloggers today i thought i should send around a note introducing myself. I could tell you how amaxing my blog is, but that would be pointless, judge for yourslef. My official intoduction is on Craig Cantin's blog and it is below. The only other thing i want to mention is that i have a map at the base of my blog where you can comment and add your a plug for your own website. If you take a look at this you will see quite a few other green bloggers on it, you might even find a blog you didnt know about. I`m trying to map the green blogosphere.

---Quote from Craig's blog-----

New Green Blogger: Climate Change Action
Please help me in welcoming our newest member of the Green Bloggers: Climate Change Action. The blogger responsible for this blog is Calvin Jones, who resides in Alberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom. Calvin is our first Green Blogger from Scotland.

You will find Calvin's blog articles on both the main Green Bloggers site and on the UK site as well.

Welcome aboard Calvin!

Calvin Jones
Climate Change Action