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Monkeying around with pals

September 5, 2018

How baboon and human friendships are different — and alike

There are scores of saccharine quotes about friendship floating around — “Friends are the relatives we choose,” for example. (Really, the only one that resonates is “Friends help you move. Real friends help you move bodies.”)

A few weeks into the fall semester, new Sun Devils are joining clubs, forming study groups and, hopefully, becoming friends with their roommates, so we talked to two anthropologists in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University about friendship.

Joan Silk studies how natural selection shapes the evolution of social behavior in primates, mainly baboons. Daniel Hruschka, a professor of anthropology and global health, has written a book on friendship: "Friendship: Development, Ecology, and Evolution of a Relationship."

“Friendships in humans fulfill a lot of our needs,” Hruschka said. “Friends bring your food when we can’t get it. They protect us in fights. A friend in a hostile village will protect you. In modern society, friends will give us advice.”

In Bangladesh, where Hruschka researches, friends help each other harvest and plant, prepare rice and help with child care and cooking. Friends back each other up in fights. They stay with each other.

“Those are some of the functions of friendship you see,” he said.

There is no phenomenon like friendship in baboons, but there are some similarities. Surprisingly, baboon relationships may be healthier for them than human friendship is for people. And while both baboons and humans help each other, it takes different forms.

Baboons are stressed pretty much most of the time. They’re about the size of an average dog, and everything around them wants to kill them. Males beat females, and females beat younger females.

“It’s not relaxing to be a baboon,” Silk said. “They’re constantly afraid of various things.”

Baboons live in large groups of adult females, a few young males and all the offspring. Males move out of the group so they don’t mate with relatives. Females stay. There are mothers, daughters, sisters, granddaughters, aunts, nieces. Within these groups, females form extremely close ties to certain other females. They sit together, groom each other and spend most of their time together.

“I wouldn’t claim that there is a phenomenon exactly like friendship in baboons,” Silk said. “But nonetheless I do think there’s a real connection here. It just works a little differently. I actually think the parallels are quite meaningful.”

Silk has worked on several different baboon populations.

“This happens routinely among baboons,” she said. “Females develop these very tight relationships. The partners are usually close relatives. It’s not exactly comparable to human friendship, because we make a big distinction in our culture between friends and family.”

Females who form the strongest ties to other females — the ones who have the most relationships — live longer than other females. Their kids are also more likely to survive than those of other females. In strong relationships, stress levels go down. When stress levels drop, immune systems work more effectively.

baboons grooming

“That’s the parallel,” Silk said. “In both cases having a warm, supportive, close, predictable, stable relationship seems to have a whole bunch of effects on health and well-being.”

Stress relief isn’t necessarily a function of human friendship. In fact, the opposite is often true.

“It may be that (friends) also relieve stress because they are helping us deal with the risks of daily life, but I don’t know a lot of evidence that friends lower stress across the board,” Hruschka said. “In fact, friends can be quite stressful if they ask you to move over the weekend if you have other stuff going on. Friends can impose on you too. So I think friends can impose stress as well.”

Most primates only truly trust their relatives. People trust both relatives and friends.

“It’s the kind of relationship you have, not necessarily who you have it with, that really matters in terms of the positive consequences,” Silk said. “I think it’s ‘Can you rely on them? Do you feel comfortable with them? Is it a predictable, stable relationship?’ That’s what I think matters rather than who it is.”

Because of lions, leopards and myriad other threats, baboons are on high alert all the time. Female baboons have a dominance hierarchy. Some females can come along and beat you up, and there are females you can go and beat up.

“Things they can do to make themselves less afraid are really important,” Silk said.

When a female approaches another female, the female being approached doesn’t know what’s going to happen. A high-ranking female may attack. She might want to be groomed. She might want to look at your baby. In any case, the female being approached is afraid and may decide to just flee.

“What baboons do in that situation is they give these lovely little grunts,” Silk said. “They approach, and they grunt. It’s a quiet call; it’s not very spectacular. But to the baboons it means ‘I come in peace’ or ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’ It works, and it means they’re more relaxed. We’ve done a bunch of analyses of this and I call these grunts ‘signals of benign intent.’ It’s not that catchy, but they basically mean, ‘Relax; it’s going to be fine.’”

Related females, like mothers and daughters, don’t grunt at all to each other. It tells us something about how the relationship feels to the baboons. It feels safe and predictable, because mothers and daughters interact a lot, but they don’t feel the need to grunt very much.

Human friends help each other out with a lot, whether it’s unwanted advice at the grill on Saturday night, recommending a new app or moving a body.

“In some ways that’s unique to humans because there are so many different things we can help each other with, because culture creates so many different needs for us,” Hruschka said. “You might not see so many different needs among baboons.”

There is wide cultural variety in friendship. Human friendships can last for decades. In some societies, friendships are inherited over generations.

“Kids inherit friendships from their parents, almost formally, like it will be in a will,” Hruschka said. “You can see this happening over generations, so friendships might last for centuries ultimately. It’s not carried on by the same individuals, but by the same families.”

Above photos courtesy of Professor Joan Silk

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Effects of U.S. trade war could hit consumers' wallets, ASU expert says

Trade wars could hit consumers with higher prices, ASU agribusiness expert says.
September 5, 2018

Retaliation over tariffs affecting agricultural producers as deals are renegotiated

President Donald Trump has launched a trade war over the last several months involving billions of dollars of goods and affecting the United States’ relationships with several countries, including China, Mexico and Canada, as well as the European Union. In the latest action, Trump announced Aug. 27 a new preliminary trade agreement with Mexico, but not Canada.

Troy Schmitz is an associate professor in the Morrison School of Agribusiness in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

Schmitz teaches courses on global food and agribusiness policy, and he said that with so many changes happening so quickly, he is constantly updating his teaching materials to keep up with what is happening in the news.

The trade action started in January, when Trump imposed tariffs on solar panels and washing machines from China, and in March added tariffs on steel and aluminum. That led to a round of trade retaliations by China, including tariffs on soybeans and pork, which have already led to a decline in soybean and pork futures — meaning the producers of those commodities will make less money.

Troy Schmitz

While the U.S. tariffs have been on goods like cars and steel, the retaliation has been against agricultural products that the other countries import.

Schmitz was the organizer of a panel discussion about the economic impact of renegotiating trade agreements for agriculture earlier in August held by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association in Washington, D.C. 

“The majority of the panel believes we are moving toward bilateral, one-on-one trade agreements, as opposed to multilateral agreements involving more than two countries,” he said. “And that seems to be the direction the United States is headed.”

Schmitz answered questions from ASU Now about the trade war and the complicated way it could affect prices and jobs.

Question: We’re hearing a lot about tariffs right now. Is this unprecedented?

Answer: The last time we had heavy tariffs was in 1930, during the Great Depression. President Hoover campaigned on a platform to protect U.S. jobs, which were being lost rapidly due to the stock market collapse, so they passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. That was the last time we had huge tariffs in place, and the consensus view among most economists is that the tariffs exacerbated the Great Depression. The Great Depression lasted another 10 years, Smoot and Hawley were voted out in 1932 and President Roosevelt implemented the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934 as part of his “New Deal.”

More than 100 years before that we had the Tariff Act of 1828. So it seems that perhaps every 100 years or so we have these tariff wars.

What’s different this time is that those were approved by Congress, but President Trump is acting on his own to impose ad hoc tariffs on a grand scale.

Q: Why is that authority temporary?

A: Congress gives trade promotion authority to the president from time to time, and Trump has it until 2021. Obama was given trade promotion authority in 2015.

Q: Why is Trump pushing for a new trade deal with Mexico now?

A: With trade promotion authority, Trump can make an agreement and send it to Congress, which has 90 days to either approve it or reject it, without making changes. There is a new president of Mexico coming in on Dec. 1, who would likely scrap an agreement. So they are trying to get a deal to Congress.

If you don’t have trade promotion authority, then when you send a trade agreement to Congress, they’ll try to make alterations to it and however many months later you have to go back to the country that you negotiated with. That’s very hard to do.

Q: Are trade deals with Mexico and Canada important?

A: It’s important for agriculture because Canada and Mexico are our largest trading partners. We export $120 billion in goods to Mexico and $90 billion to Canada every year. Those countries buy more agricultural products than the next 10 countries combined, including China. It’s been estimated that roughly 2 million people have jobs in the U.S. because of NAFTA.

Q: What about the aid approved to help the farmers?

A: President Trump authorized a $12 billion payment to farmers of the major U.S. export crops hurt by the tariffs. That will cover, by my calculation, approximately four months of tariffs since March. What will he do to help farmers if the tariff retaliation continues?

The Farm Bill is being negotiated right now. Under the Farm Bill, if the average price received by producers of many of those export crops, such as soybeans, corn, cotton and wheat, drops below a certain dollar amount per bushel, the U.S. government will give the producers a check at the end of the year to make up much of the difference. If the prices drop low enough due to the tariffs, producers will receive more subsidies from the government than they have in the past several years.

Q: Will consumers see the effects of the trade war?

A: If it keeps escalating, what you’ll start to see with all the products we import from China and sell at places like Walmart, such as clothing, etc., is that prices will start to go up.

At the moment, the agricultural products most affected are soybeans and pork. It takes awhile for changes to hit the supermarket because of production cycles for livestock. As prices move lower, they adjust production.

While we’re helping out the steel producers, we’re hurting the ag exporters. The U.S. employs 1.5 million workers in agriculture, and obviously those jobs will be affected if this continues to escalate.

An economic analysis done at the beginning of the year found that due to the tariff on cotton, U.S. exports could drop by about 19 percent, and U.S. cotton growers could lose $67 million annually.

Over the last decade, 81 percent of total U.S. cotton production has been exported. India, Brazil and Australia are our main competitors. The U.S. could lose out to those three counties, especially Australia, because of the tariffs and because China and Australia signed the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement in 2015 — an agreement that left out the United States.

The president’s strategy of creating new one-on-one, or bilateral, agreements is the direction we’re going, but we’re losing out on these multination agreements.

Top image by Pixabay

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News