Archive | July, 2011
In a Yale University study which taught capuchin monkeys to understand the fungible value of currency, the first monkey prostitutes and bank robbers were born. The research, undertaken by behavioral economist Keith Chen and psychologist Laurie Santos, taught the primates that a silver disc could be exchanged for things like Jell-O and grapes. They quickly learned behaviors that are not unlike our own.
In Chen’s earlier experiments with tamarin monkeys at Harvard, his team taught a monkey to be altruistic so that when it entered a cage with a lever that dropped marshmallows into a neighboring cage, it would pull it constantly, inundating its primate pals with treats. In turn, the monkeys in the adjoining cage happily reciprocated and pulled their levers too, dropping marshmallows into the altruist’s cage. But, when they realized this monkey was nothing but a push over which would pull the lever no matter what, their reciprocation rate dropped dramatically. Kind of like a brat who is spoiled by their parent no matter what, and in turn has its bad behavior reinforced.
Similarly, in the same experiment, the scientists trained a monkey to be selfish and to never pull the lever. The monkeys in the adjacent cages reacted furiously and screamed and hurled feces at the selfish little bastard every time it was introduced into the cage next to them.
For his next experiment in collaboration with Santos, Chen taught capuchin monkeys that little silver discs could be exchanged for food treats like grapes. They learned exchange values and “price shocks” in which some food items would be devalued, giving them, for example, two cubes of Jell-O rather than one for a single coin.
In an astonishing moment of clarity, one of the monkeys stole a tray full of coins and made off with the loot. Only after bribing the monkeys with food were the researchers able to get the money back.
But it was at this moment that Chen said he spied something incredible. During the ruckus he saw how one monkey exchanged a coin for sex. The sex-giver afterwards presented the researcher with the coin in return for a grape.
Thieves and prostitutes were born with the invention of money.
This reminds me of the experiment a few years back when researchers at Duke University Medical Center tested a hypothesis that monkeys would forego valuables (in this case squirts of juice) in exchange for seeing photographs of familiar monkeys. They found that they were willing to give up squirts of juice in exchange for viewing pictures of monkeys with higher social status. The lower the social status, the less juice they were willing to give. Male monkeys, they discovered, were willing to pay with juice for views of female hindquarters.
One can imagine that given proper time a monkey magnate will be born who will create a tabloid empire exploiting the desires of his primate brethren. For, you see, porn, thievery and prostitution is monkey business after all.