The culprit may be stress hormones. When facing short-term challenges, stress hormones help humans and animals cope, but over the long term,constant exposure to uncontrollable stress can damage both brain and body. And having low social status — being at the mercy of the higher ranking— is typically a recipe for uncontrollable stress.In both humans and baboons, previous research has shown that chronic elevation of stress hormones caused by living on the bottom rungs of society increases risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and other diseases. And since this effect is seen in baboons, not just humans, the excess risk cannotsimply be attributed to lack of access to health care or to lifestyle choices like overeating, smoking or drinking. Low-ranked baboons don't have theseissues, of course.Now, the new study may help shed light on why highly unequal human societies don't just have worse health among the poor, but also have lower lifeexpectancies overall. Some of this effect may be linked to the long-term stress that comes with getting and keeping high status."We found that the overall pattern [of lower stress hormones in higher ranking animals] does occur, but that alpha males are a significant exception,"says Jeanne Altman, an author of the study and professor emerita of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton.Perhaps it is the unique stress of being at the pinnacle of power that may help explain why American presidents seem to age so much faster in officethan their immediate deputies. "Being president does seem a lot more stressful than being vice president," notes Sapolsky.But power struggles in the baboon world cannot be easily translated to human populations. For one thing, baboon hierarchies involve only physicalaggression, while human status systems are more complex and, Sapolsky thinks, do more harm. "When humans invented inequality andsocioeconomic status, they came up with a dominance hierarchy that subordinates like nothing the primate world has ever seen before," he says.Surprisingly, the new study did not find a connection between instability in the social hierarchy and stress levels among the higher-ranked baboons.Instability was linked to higher stress levels overall, but it wasn't related to specific ranks.Sapolsky thinks this may be due to the fact that the new study measured instability differently than past research. Some studies define instability asinvolving a high frequency of attempts to unseat the powerful, but other studies may recognize instability on when these challenges actually resultedin a coup."The definition in their study is, 'Is there an actual change?' Mine is more, 'Is there the threat of change?' I think threat of change is pretty potent,"says Sapolsky. "In humans, blood pressure doesn't go up when people get laid off: it goes up when they first hear rumors that layoffs are coming atthe end of the month." Altman agrees that more investigation into the issue is needed, but she thinks that at least in terms of the difference in stress hormones betweenalphas and betas, "the amount of challenges to rank would not account for the differences."So what would the world be like if we eliminated the hard-charging top-ranked folks and had more kinder, gentler males around? One baboon troopthat Sapolsky studied seemed to illustrate the scenario vividly. The meanest and most aggressive males in that troop often fought males of anothertroop in order to gain access to garbage that included meat discarded by humans at a lodge. When that meat supply became tainted by disease, it killed off the most aggressive top-ranked males and left gentler males in charge; it also resultedin a ratio of two females to each male.Not surprisingly the troop became much mellower. "You get a totally different troop culture," Sapolsky says. "There's less aggression and lessdisplacement of aggression onto innocent bystanders. In a typical troop, if any one of high rank [is in a bad mood], your ass is going to get slashed."In the new troop culture, however, this type of aggression was greatly reduced. And so were the stress levels of the lower ranking animals. "Thecruddy physiology you get in low-ranking males in typical troops, you don't see in this troop," he says.Of course, if there were two females for every male, human men might be a lot nicer too. But Sapolsky discovered that it wasn't just the female-to-male ratio that mattered. Other troops with similarly large female populations did not become peaceful. And, fascinatingly, the gentler culture was passed on to the next generation. Less aggression led to more time for grooming, which relieved stresseven further and affected the offspring. "I think the [young] growing up in that troop are reaping some of the advantages of having calmer mothers,"Sapolsky says."Textbook primatology presents male baboons as inevitably aggressive, innately and genetically," he notes. "If this [cultural change] can happen in baboons, you can't say we don't have behavioral flexibility," he says.So, hang in there, nice guys. Perhaps being a beta male means you'll land on top in the end.
baboons,Body & Mind,economic inequality,health,inequality, jeanne altman,Mental Health,rank,robert sapolsky,status,Stress
Page 2of 3Move Over, Alpha Males. Why Being a Beta May Be Better (at Least for Baboons) – TI...7/15/2011http://healthland.time.com/2011/07/14/move-over-alpha-males-why-being-a-beta-may-be-...