British Association for the Advancement of Science: Top civil servants 'ape' lifestyle of baboons

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SIR HUMPHREY Appleby, star of Yes Minister, would never have believed it but Whitehall's permanent secretaries, the cream of the Civil Service, have a lot in common with dominant males among Kenyan olive baboons - they live longer, suffer less stress, and generally have a better time of it than those lower in the hierarchy.

According to Professor Robert Evans of the University of British Columbia, a study of more than 10,000 civil servants has revealed that those in the lowest grades are three times as likely to die young or suffer illness as those at the top. There is clearly a process at work by which hierarchy influences health, independently of deprivation.

But civil servants are not easy to study, compared to baboons, Professor Evans said, because it is seldom possible for scientists to watch many of the interesting interactions - mating, grooming, feeding, confrontation and conflict. Moreover, it is possible to fire anaesthetic darts at baboons so levels of stress hormones can be measured.

Lower ranking males in baboon troops have suppressed immune systems, elevated levels of bad cholesterol in their blood, and live in a chronically stressed state. Professor Evans said: 'These results are the mirror image of the (civil service) findings where the endpoints are firm - hierarchy correlates unambiguously with mortality.'

But the predominantly male ethos of Whitehall may be less healthy than the habitat of the Kenyan olive baboons where true dominants, according to Professor Evans, spend more time playing with infants and grooming and being groomed by non- oestrous females. Baboons with this more laid-back personality spent a longer time in the dominant cohort of the troop.