Monkeys for Equal Pay
Dutch scientist makes case for a sense of justice and compassion amongst animals
By Barry J. Bergman
In a lively UC Berkeley campus appearance hosted this March by the Greater Good Science Center, Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist, offered compelling evidence that capuchin monkeys –namesakes of an order of Catholic friars–not only recognize inequity, but are quick to challenge it.
Frans played a video of an experiment he’d done with pairs of capuchin monkeys, housed side by side in glass cages. In return for handing a pebble to a researcher, one monkey receives a bland piece of cucumber, which she’s happy to get–until she sees that her partner’s reward for the very same task is a tasty grape.
She gives it another try, but instead of a grape gets cucumber again. This time she hurls the cuke back at the researcher, rattles her cage and pounds the floor in angry protest. It’s a tantrum similar, in fact–as another video showed–to that of a human toddler who sees her older brother get a cookie, only to get half herself.
During Frans’s experiments, monkeys rewarded equitably rejected the cucumber just five percent of the time. If their partners received a grape, however, they refused their lower pay at a rate of 50 percent. And when partners were given a grape “for free,” without even having to pick up a pebble, rejections soared.
Such behavior, said the Dutch-born scientist, now at Emory University, is further evidence that humans are not the only species to boast a moral code, and that morality is separate from God and religion. Instead, it’s related to what he calls the “pro-social tendencies” of primates and other animals, a self-awareness– and awareness of others–that gives rise to emotional responses like reconciliation, empathy and consolation.
“I’ve seen chimps kill each other,” said Frans, “so I’m very fully aware of their competitive side.” After studying aggression in chimps as a student in the Netherlands, though, “It struck me that after fights they would come together, they kissed and embraced each other, and that was actually more interesting than the aggression itself.”
And chimps aren’t the only nonhuman animals with a bent for reconciliation. He described the difference between two kinds of macaques, rhesus monkeys and stump-tails, and the cultural influence that one can have on the other. Rhesus monkeys, he said, are “very hierarchical,” prone to punishing subordinates and not keen on reconciliation. Stump-tailed monkeys, by contrast, are “very tolerant and engaging.”
“I usually compare them as the New Yorkers and the Californians,” he said. In one experiment, juvenile stumptailed and rhesus monkeys were housed together for five months–during which the stump-tails’ mellowness rubbed off on their more belligerent cousins.
“What we’re showing here is how strongly reconciliation behavior in rhesus monkeys can be affected by the social environment,” said Frans. “Which means that humans, of course, can also be affected by the social environment.”
He cited studies that reveal “big cultural differences” between America and Japan, where children reconcile “much more” than their U.S. counterparts–likely due, according to researchers, to the way teachers in each country handle conflict in class and on the playground.
“Teachers in the U.S., as soon as there’s a fight among kids they step in and stop it,” he said, while in Japan “they let them fight, and reconcile on their own.”
During his talk, Frans employed data, humor and videos to break down commonly held beliefs about the differences between human and nonhuman animals. There were chimps showing empathy by unselfishly caring for their partners’ well being, for example, and a pair of elephants figuring out how to haul in a tricky feeding apparatus by coordinating their efforts.
And while his listeners were rapt throughout, they witnessed plenty of evidence of “yawn contagion,” which, like other manifestations of empathy – human and not – rises and falls in relation to others’ perceived “otherness.”
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