What Monkeys Can Tell Us About Ourselves




Evolutionary biases that are hard-wired into our behavior are "really hard to turn off, even when we're aware of them," says Yale psychologist Laurie Santos. But at least being aware of them can help us understand why we do what we do. "The fact that we can kind of think twice, pause, kind of inhibit this sort of instinctual bias... that gives us a weapon against these sorts of biases," says Santos. "But in some sense we have to know they’re there in the first place to actually implement these kind of 'Wait, wait, wait, let me stop, pause, think about it and try to come up with the right decision.'"

In her most recent Big Think interview, Santos talks about some of the more interesting ways that we can see the roots of these kinds of behaviors in our primate relatives.  She says for a long time it was difficult for researchers to understand the motivations of monkeys because they were looking at the problem from a human perspective.  In order to understand monkeys, she says, they had to learn to think like monkeys.

Santos also talks about research that seems to indicate similarities to human prejudice in Rhesus monkeys. Evidently monkeys have similar ways of reacting to "in" groups and "out" groups, indicating the same cognitive processing "at the roots of human sexism, human racism, human ageism, basically any form of human group-ism," she says.

Looking at chimpanzees and bonobos, the closest animal relatives to humans, can be somewhat confusing, says Santos. Chimpanzees are aggressive and warlike, while bonobos are very peaceful, social, and sex-oriented. "There’s a bit of a puzzle in the field of what parts of these two guys did the humans get, you know, are we more like chimpanzees, are we more like bonobos?" she notes. And despite how advanced our species is, Santos notes that humans know maddeningly little about why we have the reproductive system that we have. "We know much more about the reproductive systems of pipe fish and swans and lions, then we do about our own species," says Santos. "Which is kind of pathetic."

The animal kingdom is full of colorful ways that males woo mates, and Santos shares one of her favorites: the mating ritual of the buff-breasted sandpiper. "It's this otherwise kind of drab-looking brown Arctic bird," she says of the sandpiper. "It’s drab looking because it lives in the Arctic, very hard to get food and do everything.  But it kind of allows for its beauty to come out in really strange ways.  And one of these ways is that it has incredibly attractive armpit. So, its armpit is very white, very clean and it will do flash displays for females where males will kind of get out in a field and kind of flash its armpit and if the females like the armpit, they can fly from miles and miles and then they’ll do this kind of wonderful armpit display and the females, you know, fall for it."

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Space toilets: How astronauts boldly go where few have gone before

A NASA astronomer explains how astronauts dispose of their, uh, dark matter.

Videos
  • When nature calls in micro-gravity, astronauts must answer. Space agencies have developed suction-based toilets – with a camera built in to ensure all the waste is contained before "flushing".
  • Yes, there have been floaters in space. The early days of space exploration were a learning curve!
  • Amazingly, you don't need gravity to digest food. Peristalsis, the process by which your throat and intestines squeeze themselves, actually moves food and water through your digestive system without gravity at all.
Keep reading Show less

Steven Pinker's 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Personal Growth
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less