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Saturday, March 04, 2006

"Our Inner Ape"

Yesterday, I went to a lecture given by the renowned and highly influential primatologist, Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape. Among other things, he argued that most of the study of the evolution of behavior has focused on antagonistic interactions, promoting the idea that evolution favors competition, aggression, violence and dominance. But, there's a whole range of behaviors that have been ignored because of this, including "cooperation, reconciliation" and altruism. He is right, of course, that those types of behaviors have received less attention, but I just assumed this was partly because the people who study those behaviors tend to assign human attributes to their subjects and the rest of us have trouble taking it seriously. So, when de Waal talked about cognition in capuchin monkeys, the anthropologists all creamed their panties, while the ethologists just rolled their eyes. I, personally, think there are huge problems with giving animals human characteristics in the context of research. In other contexts, though there's a 50/50 chance that it'll be just as annoying...but it's alright on rare occasions.

The reverse is even more frustrating: analyzing human behavior based on what we know of animals, which was one of the main points of this lecture and his recent book (linked above). I tend to have a visceral reaction when people say things like "humans are supposed to be (fill in the blank) because (insert generic primates) are that way." Behavior is hugely diverse, even among our closest related primates, for one thing. And, I think, human behavior is even more diverse and accounting for all of the social/ economic/ political/ genetic/ emotional factors that contribute to making us individual seems too impractical and impossible to even try.

However, under certain circumstances, I am willing to concede that there are things we can learn about ourselves from animals. De Waal told a story about a chimpanzee, Yeroen, who was displaced from his alpha position. Later, Yeroen teamed up with a second male, Nikkie, and together they took the leadership back. Yeroen helped Nikkie maintain the position, and in return, Nikkie let Yeroen reap the benefits of holding a high position (insert video of Yeroen getting it on with a female, while Nikkie sat by and watched...yes he watched). In an effort to argue for our inner ape, de Waal dared to make the comparison between the Yeroen/ Nikkie relationship:

to another more familiar King/ Kingmaker relationship:

and I must say, he's definitely got a point here. I can see the resemblance now. Maybe I'll have to rethink this whole anthropomorphism thing...maybe.