Are Monkeys More Moral Than People

In a talk by Lori Santos from a Coursera course I’m taking at the moment (the talk is limited to those signed up for the course, but you can find a similar talk by her here), she points to an experiment from the 1960s, in which monkeys would go up to 12 days refusing to pull a lever they knew would give them food, because this lever now had the added side effect of administering a painful electric shock to another nearby monkey. This she contrasts cleverly with the famous Stanley Milgram electric shock experiments in which people overwhelmingly chose to administer severe shocks, even going to the stage of thinking they may have killed or at least rendered unconscious the other participant (who, unbeknownst to them, was an actor), simply because they were told by a person in authority (the scientist in charge) to continue administering the shocks. Similar experiments have been conducted in the years since, most of which tend to agree with the rather troubling conclusion that people will do rather terrible things when told to do so by someone in a position of authority. Incidentally, this was exactly what Milgram was hoping to show, as a way of making sense of many obedience justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II Nuremberg War Criminal trials – that they were “just following orders“.

Whilst this contrast of course comes from pitting two individual, quite specific cases directly against each other, it is interesting, and somewhat terrifying, to think that many people seemed willing to possibly kill another person simply following orders from a higher authority, whilst the monkeys in the other experiments would practically starve themselves to avoid hurting another monkey in a similar way. Posing the question: Are monkeys better people than people?

As mentioned above, the comparison here isn’t really a fair one, the talk (and indeed the other readings and lectures associated with the course) goes on to point out that in many other experiments monkeys and apes (for alliterative reasons, I only mentioned monkeys in the title, but the work with apes was even more fascinating) were shown to be less empathetic or conscious of concepts like fairness. Nonetheless, it does open up some interesting questions about why exactly we often take it for granted that concepts such as compassion, empathy and kindness are primarily human traits.

Santos goes on to talk about Daniel Pinchbeck’s theory of “demonic males” – a fascinating theory that the primary difference between the violence and territorialism  of chimpanzees, and the peaceful, empathetic, sex-centric bonobos is that chimpanzee societies are patriarchal and bonobo societies are matriarchal. Santos’ talk elaborates on some of the points of this argument, which paints a fascinating, and quite convincing picture; that because of feeding habits in their different habitats, chimps became more alpha-male centric due scarcity of food on the ground and, as such, a need to climb high into the trees to get food, leaving the mothers (laden with burdensome babies) to rely on them for food; whereas in the bonobo society, food was plentiful on the ground, and the more social, team-work oriented females became dominant. The theory goes on to credit this very difference with many of the cruel violent behaviours seen amongst chimps – killing their young, engaging in warfare and raiding against other chimp communities, proving their sexual dominance through violent displays and occasional rapes – and the caring behaviours, as well as heavy focus on sexual behaviour, of the bonobos – frequent use of sex in social situations and displays of empathy and caring for injured, weak or orphaned members of society.

“Bonobos use sex for much more than making babies,” the authors note. “They have sex as a way of making friends. They have sex to calm someone who is tense. They have sex as a way to reconcile after aggression.” Like the members of some adventurous free love commune of the 1960s, bonobos have frequent homosexual sex and condone sex between adults and children. When a bonobo group meets a group of unknown bonobos, they generally mate and socialize with them rather than try to kill them.

I’ve never been much of a radical feminist, or for the idea that the “patriarchy” should not only be dismantled, but rather replaced by a matriarchy… But in light of the possibility that having the female of the species in charge might lead to a 1960s-hippy-commune-style society full of sex and being generally pure sound to each other, I, for one, suggest we welcome our female overlords (overladies? over-people?) with open arms.

~ Shane

Photo Credit: Axel.Foley via photopin cc


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