Tuesday, July 27

A Tale of Two Babies

I've been holding back on this story, waiting for a more opportune time to tell it. I may have just been trying to put it off because of the difficulty in telling it.

When the original team first began working with the main troop at this site, a few months before I arrived, there had been a baby boom, and almost a dozen black infants had been recently born. Most adult females in the troop were carrying around a baby at that time, including Trish, the first female to be identified and named. She was the easiest to pick out because of her baby, who was dead.

No one ever saw how the infant died. Its a common enough occurrence after all. What counted was that the baby had only recently perished, so Trish proceeded to carry the baby around for about a week before discarding the corpse. By that time, her image and persona had solidified itself in the team's mind.

After that, the months passed uneventfully for Trish. She went into estrus again after a few weeks, several cycles later, her swelling abated and didn't grow again. She began to show, and for the following six months, gradually took on the bloated shape of a pregnant baboon.

Tina had noted months earlier just how small her nipples were, but for us, this as just a characteristic for identification. Only when the baby was born did we fully realize the potential problem with this feature.

Trish attempted to nurse the new infant for almost a week. She held the infant close to her chest, and it searched, but never did it seem to catch on one of her nipples. I watched her raptly when I had the time, and often thought I saw some progress, but the deterioration of the baby's condition proved me conclusively wrong. Over the course of that week, I slowly watched Trish's baby starve to death in her arms. The baby stopped squeaking after the first few days, its movements growing progressively more sluggish, responding to fewer and fewer cues from Trish. Eventually, the baby ceased to move voluntarily, though if you watched closely, you could see a weak breathing motion in the chest. After she finally died, the Trish carried the child around for a few more days, and then, as before, she discarded the corpse for good.

My front row view of this progression had quite an impact on me, emotionally. Yet, I try as hard as I can to approach the situation both subjectively and objectively in what I ought to take away from what is arguably a tragedy. On the one hand, her inferior genes prevent her from successfully reproducing, thus preventing this particular unfortunate trait from being passed on to any subsequent generation of baboon.

On the other hand, I can't imagine how painful this must be for her, physically or emotionally. For starters, I'm not a female, so I do not know what feminine hormones or the physiology of gestation and birth are like, but I hear (from most people) that they're less than spectacular. Yet, I have a decent enough imagination. Trish will spend the entirety of her life, up till menopause, dealing with cumbersome swellings, pestering males, and the following discomforts of pregnancy, all for naught. Furthermore, she misses out on the reprieve period which other females spend suckling their babies and gaining social ground. Instead, Trish returns to cycling a few weeks after her latest baby dies, and the whole annoying process begins afresh... despite the preordained outcome.

Another reason I can't imagine her suffering is because the human race has a hundred ways around this sort of problem. Modern technology has given us formula milk, but since time immemorial, humans could use wet nurses to save the life of a child. For baboons, there is no such option. Female social bonds can be quite strong, but not that strong. Females in this situation have to deal with their pain, mostly alone.

A question that always rises in my mind when I think about Trish is, what do we do with her? Practically, there is nothing we can or should do about Trish, the individual. She's part of the wild ecosystem, and its not good practice to intervene in natural aspects of baboon life. Not much to be done for her except... euthanization. Would it be better to euthanize Trish than to let her continue a harsh life which is, pretty convincingly, pointless? It may be fortunate, that as scientists we can escape such decisions by invoking, or perhaps hiding behind, the principles of non-involvement.


  1. I'd not be so quick to recognize her life as being 'pointless' just yet. Even accepting it as a guarantee that she will never be able to successfully raise a child, I am loathe to accept that her life is pointless without reproductive success.

    Even in a life of suffering, what is the point of her or any babboon's life really meant to be? Is it successful procreation? What's the point of that? Does each generation merely leave the point of existence up to its descendants?

    What I mean to say is that this notion suggests a cycle of life where no one generation possesses its own distinct 'meaning' except the creation of the next in line. Where is the actual content of happiness? Long distant sapience?

    It just seems to me that to suggest that the life at the leaf of the tree is meaningless is to suggest that the entire tree only possesses some philosophical intangible 'meaning' itself.

  2. Well, what you're arguing against is part of what sociobiology indicates. The core unit of life is not the living individual, but the genes which are passed from generation to generation. In essence, each life is just a container for those genes. Of course, this isn't a linear process, so the branch of the tree which had lead to Trish will end up snapping off, but the rest remains.

    If you look at it from a broader philosophical standpoint (which most people take with humans), that's another matter entirely. A matter which as far as I am concerned, no one has made significant headway in for a hundred years or more. What can I say? I'm a cynic.

  3. Nah, you're probably right. My argument is too easy, and basically nullifies any possible meaning in non-human life outright if it were to actually stand.

    Just seemed worth thinking about.