Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Monkey Business

About a year ago, I read of a study done by animal behaviorists claiming to demonstrate that a sense of justice inheres in haplorhinid simiiforms (basically, monkeys and apes). There's a certain niceness to this whole proposition, and I don't want to dispute the ultimate conclusion, which generally supports the idea that human beings are wired with a propensity towards rule-generation that leads to spontaneous cooperation. But in all fairness, the study should be seen on its own terms for what it is.

The experimental setup involved several monkeys that were able to observe each other as the researcher had them perform a task for a reward - sometimes a cucumber, sometimes a more preferred banana. If a monkey received a cucumber yet observed another getting a banana, it sometimes refused to participate in future experiments, sometimes throwing the garnished reward at the researcher.

I shouldn't have to say it, but humans are not monkeys. We're apes, they're not. If you want to apply results from one branch of our family tree to another, it's important to test to see if the behavioral characteristic is in fact found on both ends. This study says nothing about human behavior under similar circumstances, nor does it try to trace it back to a common ancestor.

The authors of the study also fail the basic standard of parsimony - is the explanation of the result unencumbered by unnecessary presumptions? In this case, the assumption is that the monkeys were upset because they felt wronged. It's hard enough to say why a human being does something; are we really so confident in our psychoanalytic acumen that we're making bold statements about the cognitive states of monkeys? A simpler alternative explanation seems available.

If we limit the extrapolations of the data to the conclusion that monkeys get jealous when another monkey has something better, I'm confortable. But when we try and say that the monkey is moralizing and thinking about the application of some sort of Kantian categorical imperative for the equitable distribution of goods in society, I have to step off. I'm not going to say they're not doing just that, but I'm not going to place a bet on it on the strength of this study.

In the end, the study, while compelling, isn't worth going bananas over. Are monkeys moral animals? Perhaps. A better question might be "are humans moral animals?"

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