We are swiftly coming up to the United States election and Ferrebeekeeper needs to endorse a candidate. You can probably already guess whether I will endorse the competent and hard-working patriot (the one who is admittedly very ambitious and bit sloppy with finicky data protocols) or the unhinged con-artist who is not only an ignoramus, a bully, and a bigot, but poses an existential threat to the republic itself. However, before we get around to making this difficult choice (and, maybe…finally reaching an end to this ghastly and divisive national contest) we need to think about primatology.
Specifically there was an experiment conducted by primatologist Frans de Waal with some capuchin monkeys to understand social behavior and social cognition in primate groups. In the experiment, the capuchins (who are exceedingly bright characters) were asked to do a small task in exchange for a food reward while the other monkeys watched the exchange. Some monkeys were given grapes…which capuchins love. Others were given little slivers of cucumber (a far less valuable treat) for completing the same task.
Not surprisingly, monkeys who watched a different monkey do the same task for a much better reward flew into a rage. They hurled their cucumber away and banged on their plexiglass enclosures and shook their little bars and sulked.
Now, a tiny sliver of cucumber is not a valueless thing for a monkey who spends all day being tortured by scientists and fed bland monkey chow. Probably the rational thing to do would be to take the cucumber and kiss the cruel scientists’ hand and call it a day (then quietly wait for a chance to rise up, bite some faces off, and enslave Charlton Heston).
But if you were a monkey and reacted with apparent docility to unfair treatment, who knows how you would be taken advantage of next? It wouldn’t just be primatologists who took advantage of you, soon enough your fellow monkeys would too.
What is truly important to social animals is status: this intangible commodity is fungible and it is pegged to a highly complex and immediate relative framework. A cucumber slice, though fine in its own right confers less status than a prestigious grape. To throw it away and freak out makes sense to capuchin monkeys because larger issues are on the line (even if they are apparently hurting themselves in the short term). Spite matters for monkeys: it is one way that monkeys can mess with more powerful entities and protest the unfair allocation of resources and rewards.
Again and again the question arises among the people I know in New York of how anyone could be taken in by an illiterate orange charlatan with a pronounced tendency to molest woman, steal from workers, and cheat on taxes. Maybe some people truly believe in Donald Trump, but I believe for a larger number of people in the middle of the country he is neither the grape nor the cucumber: Trump is the act of throwing the cucumber away. High status monkeys should take note and make some immediate changes, but I suspect they will only hide their equities in the Cayman Islands and buy bigger Bentleys. Primates are not great at solving social hierarchy problems without lots of shrieking, biting, and shit-throwing.