October 16, 2009

Monkey Economics, Or The Evolution Of A Patriot

The newest trend in academics is trying to find evolutionary connections between humans and other species. It has been established with parrots. It has been done with dolphins. But the surest way to send creationists into a tizzy is to mention the behaviors we share with monkeys and apes.

That's what makes the concept of monkey economics so gratifying. Researchers around the world are finding that the ability to understand and practice commerce is not limited to the human species. Dr. Laurie Santos has conducted experiments that show capuchin monkeys can learn how to operate in a market environment.

The monkeys are taught that a token can be exchanged for food. When given the choice of whether to trade for apple slices or jello-cubes, they in general trade for each about 50% of the time. But when one of the sellers decides that he will sell jello-cubes two for one, they stop buying apple slices and spend most of their money on jello.

But when the experiment is shifted, the monkeys' behavior adapts in a significant way. The two sellers begin to both offer apple slices, but the first appears to offer one slice for one token, but upon receiving the payment, actually gives two. The second presents three apples, but takes one apple away after receiving the token. When presented with this scenario, the monkeys overwhelmingly buy apples from the first seller, even though statistically, they are getting the same deal, two slices for one token. This type of behavior is known as loss aversion.

Interestingly enough, when humans are subjected to similar experiments, the results are nearly identical to those with monkeys. Both monkeys and humans seem to care as much about a sense of fairness as they do with their own economic gain.

Keith Chen has taken the experiments even further. He has discovered that not only do the monkeys have a thorough understanding of the value of the money, they have taken to stealing it. One day, when a monkey was brought out of his living area into the adjacent testing area, as soon as the door was open, the subject charged at the tray of tokens and flung it behind him, sending the other monkeys into fever as they rushed to get the pilfered booty.

Even more remarkably, as Chen was trying to restore order and get the tokens back, he observed a male monkey take a token and offer it to one of the females in exchange for sex. After getting her payment, she promptly took the token and offered it to one of the scientists in return for a grape.

Yes, this is a true story!

I would like nothing more than to have Chen lock some capitalist monkeys in a room with a group of intelligent design supporters and see what transpires. It must be hard for religious right wingers to read about these results. On the one hand, here is further proof of the evolutionary link between humans and primates. But on the other hand, it is also provides evidence that these monkeys are proud supporters of capitalism.

1 comment:

kimberly kyan said...

o, this was a good one.