Thursday, 20 October 2016

Monkey Business?

Prostitution has been described as the oldest profession. You could argue that sex is a commodity just like any other. There is nothing 'concrete' given by the prostitute, he/she clearly gains monetary reward for services rendered, which for the purpose of this post will be deemed pleasure. Pleasure means different things to different folk, but most of us can experience the sublime pleasure of sexual experience, fleeting though it may be. Although it is to be acknowledged that a small minority of the population are denied the sexual impulse and therefore these individuals are unlikely to procure the services of a hooker.
For humans, and most animal species, sex is the great motivator driving their existence. Without sex there is no continuation of the species. Thus sexual pleasure ensures that individuals indulge in sexual activity thus producing generations ad infinitum.
Researchers at Yale conducted an experiment where they attempted to teach capuchin monkeys the concept of money. Shiny aluminium discs were distributed amongst the troop and after some effort the researchers managed to train the monkeys to exchange the tokens for food from the handlers. Could this behaviour demonstrate the monkey's ability to understand the basic concept of barter using an item of no intrinsic value, money? If so, it would demonstrate that the capuchin have the capacity to assimilate and understand abstract constructs, at least at some fundamental level. A facility, usually denied our animal brethren. Chimpanzees and Dolphins are possible exceptions.
So what has all this got to do with prostitution? Is it possible that your gracious and perfectly formed host (third nipple included) has lost his tenuous grasp on reality and slithered arse first into the gaping bottomless pit that is frank insanity-wibble bottom? Money is a versatile tool and wouldn't it be great if the researchers could show the capuchins using the tokens in a more human like way, for instance purchasing a service.
On one occasion the researchers noticed a male monkey offering a female capuchin a token after which she allowed the male to copulate with her. Immediately afterward and without waiting to say goodbye to her erstwhile paramour, the female approached the handler and exchanged the token for a piece of fruit. The researchers were triumphant and concluded that the monkeys were engaged in the exchange of ‘money’ for sex. Perhaps the oldest profession is older than we originally thought. Maybe eons ago a hominid ancestor exchanged coloured pebbles for ‘services rendered’. The researchers suggested that perhaps this behaviour was fairly normal and widespread in wild capuchin troops. Of course, in the wild, hard currency is hard to come by, but ripe fruit is a potent aphrodisiac, especially bananas. Or are the researchers exploiting some other form of behaviour? Are we really observing monkey behaviour analogous to human prostitution? Before we all go ape, here are a just few points to reflect upon:
The situation described appears to be a single instance. In science it is unwise to establish conclusions on a limited data set. For the observation to be valid it should be observed many times and in many individuals. Furthermore, for the observation to progress from hypothesis to conjecture to theory, independent verification is required. That is, other researchers should be able to replicate the initial results. As far as I’m aware this has not occurred; cold fusion illusion, anyone? Of note, the two prominent researchers in the study are not scientists: Keith Chen is an economist and Laurie Santos a psychologist. Perhaps they are not familiar with the usual experimental rigour required when handling empirical data?
The capuchin 'troop' under investigation was far from the natural social dynamic favoured by these monkeys. The experiment consisted of seven unrelated individuals. Capuchins normally live in groups of about fifty and the females in the group exhibit some degree of genetic kinship. The mature males are interlopers and therefore usually unrelated. Thus these domesticated animals were living under artificial conditions and any attempt to explain and extrapolate their behaviour in terms of ‘wild behaviour’ has to be tempered accordingly. The point: it is virtually impossible to draw conclusions about normal capuchin behaviour under these contrived conditions.
Capuchins in the wild and in captivity use sex and mounting as a means of cementing social dominance, diffusing tension and promoting trust between troop members. Not all sex is motivated by procreation. About 50% of all sexual mounting is between individuals of the same sex.
As humans we like to uncover motivations which reaffirm or are in accord with our preconceived notions and prejudices. Why not impose human like qualities on our intelligent and nearest evolutionary animal cousins? It is very tempting to see complex human patterns and repertoires of behaviour in intelligent animals. I suspect the so called economic activity observed in capuchins is nothing more than an extension of tool use in this species. If you watch long enough you can mould the monkey into whatever you like. An economist will see innate monkey behaviour through the lens of an economist; observer beware.
This research was first published in 2005 and sadly to the chagrin of economists and psychologists everywhere, the initial findings have not been replicated. Therefore it is unlikely that a monkey 'Red Light' district will be appearing anywhere soon.
There goes the neighbourhood.

Elephants will be flying next, ya big dumbo