Monkey See, Monkey Do

It always surprises me that people look to monkeys for hope.

I suppose it is because they looks so much like us, because they are, in fact, like us, that they serve something of the same function in the debate of essential morality that children do: they seem like us in a pristine state.  We look to them to see what we might have been like, before adulthood or primate evolution fucked us up.

So people look to monkeys and apes to get a glimpse into our own essential nature: if they are amoral animals merely, then perhaps we are no better than they, only cleverer.

But if they are good, if they have kind natures, if they treat each other according to some kind of primitive moral code, then that would be good news indeed for us: it would suggest that ethics is in our nature.

That is the thesis of the book ‘Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals’, by Frans de Waal.  De Waal is a zoologist and primate ethologist, and a very persuasive writer about primates (he is the author of the great, great ‘Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes’), and in ‘Good Natured’, he says, “I have set myself the task of seeing if some of the building blocks of morality are recognizable in other animals” (p.3).

He does this, he says, because, “Given the universality of moral systems, the tendency to develop and enforce them must be an integral part of human nature…instead of human nature’s being either fundamentally brutish or fundamentally noble, it is both” (p.2-5).

Double Holding
Double-Holding (in rhesus macaque)

Which is to say, of course, that it is neither.  Frans de Waal did not convince me that apes are fundamentally, rudimentarily moral, but he did convince me that we are fundamentally social.  And that is morally worrisome.

For example, did you know that rhesus macaques hold their infants tightly in their arms with other infants, to encourage the two infants to bond?  It’s called ‘double-holding’.  But, and here’s the really interesting bit, according to de Waal, “double-holding is highly selective: nine out of ten mothers hold their infant with the offspring of females who outrank them…perhaps mothers are suggesting upper-class rather than lower-class friends to their offspring” (p.101).

Punishment
Punishing an low-ranking playmate (in rhesus macaque)

 

Conversely, when their offspring play with a lower-ranking youngster, the mother may separate and punish the lower-ranked young monkey.

Or, “macaques are specialists in indirect revenge [emphasis in the original]…victims of attack often vent their feelings on a relative of the opponent.  Their targets are typically younger than the initial aggressor, hence easier to intimidate, and the vindictive action may occur after considerable delay” (p.159).

De Waal sees in these behaviors evidence of the kind of sophisticated social behavior which might underlie rudimentary ethics and I think that makes him hopeful.  I see in these behaviors evidence that primates (including humans) are fundamentally social, and that does not make me hopeful.

Social behaviors, social instincts, of the kind de Waal describes aren’t moral – they are tribal.  These behaviors suggest that primates have deep-wired capacities to tell in-group versus out-group, to assign other primates spots in a social hierarchy, and to place individuals within functional units for purposes of social advancement or retaliation.

Conflict
Three lower-ranking females gang up on a higher-ranking female (in rhesus macaques)

De Waal may see the germ of morality here, but I see the germ of most human evil.  Our remarkable and innate ability to sort each other, our intense desire to affiliate and to exclude, our propensity to generalize the virtues and sins of individuals onto their kin, or to groups that share their characteristics: these are the behaviors which underlie genocides and race wars, religious crusades and colonializations.  And I see the beginnings of them in those macaques.

It is very hard to shake an instinct: you may learn all the moral rules you like, but in the dark moments, when you are angry or afraid, you tend to default to your instincts.

And our instincts, revealed in those monkeys, are to arrange ourselves into heritable hierarchies, which are also called ‘classes’.  Our instincts are to claw towards the status of those above us and not to pity those below us.  Our instincts are to remember the insults we’re dealt and not the ones we’ve given, to retaliate, to revenge ourselves on the kin of our aggressors.

And so monkeys don’t make me hopeful at all.

All images are taken from ‘Good Natured‘, and were taken by Frans de Waal at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, where he is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior.

Note for the sake of pedantry only:  Monkeys and apes are not synonymous terms: they are different sub-orders of primates. Rhesus macaques, pictured above in the body of the post, are monkeys.  The header image is of a bonobo, which, like humans, are apes.

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