Register Tuesday | January 21 | 2020

Pop Goes the Monkey

Our love of celebrities is in our genes

We owe a debt of gratitude to primates. We’re forever pumping them full of experimental drugs and slapping electrodes on their furry little heads. Genetically, monkeys are perfect test cases for humans—the only difference between them and us is a tiny proportion of DNA base pairs.

Despite similarities in the way we socialize, however, we’re still comparing ourselves to a species that gets its kicks
from throwing fecal matter at the wall. Like looking for shapes in clouds, ascribing complex human motivations to animals sometimes involves a bit of projection. This is what makes pet ownership an exercise in anthropomorphism and children’s literature one big talking zoo: we understand the world around us by assuming every creature feels the same way we do.

Remember Koko, the sign-language gorilla? People love to watch her because her childlike abilitiesdemonstrate just how close to us our evolutionary relatives are. Truth is, we’re not so much watching an ape brain struggle to express its thoughts in human terms as assigning a whole range of human emotions to a gorilla named Koko. Thusly, we draw whatever conclusions about ourselves we happen to be looking for.

Sometimes, though, a study crops up that undeniably links our behaviour to that of our foremonkeys. Case in point: last January, researchers Robert Deaner, Amit Khera and Michael Platt at the Duke University Medical Center announced that rhesus macaques will pay, in juice rations, for the opportunity to view two kinds of pictures—female monkey hindquarters and high-ranking males’ faces. Apparently, the little critters value information about sexy broads and macaque bigwigs over the satisfaction of a tasty juice snack. Putting aside the implications for porn aficionados worldwide, this study means one thing: humans are hard-wired to care about celebrity. Brangelina, Tomkat, Bennifer: monkeys, monkeys, monkeys.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that reading the magazines at the supermarket checkout does not require higher cognitive function (though they’d be damn challenging without opposable thumbs). But while it’s nice to have one’s guilty fascination with celebrities scientifically vindicated, these studies can really make a person down on monkeys. We spend too much time focussing on sordid tales. Why can’t we study more inspirational primates? Why focus on boring old zoo monkeys?

Take King Kong, the classic rags-to-riches story. A giant ape from an island backwater is discovered by explorer talent scouts and whisked away to the flashy world of the stage. Beloved by paparazzi and fans the moment he sets foot in the big city, Kong’s story illustrates how, if you follow your dream and listen to your heart, you’ll come out on top. And what of Dr. Zaius, of Planet of the Apes fame? Zaius was an orangutan of deep and abiding faith who never strayed from what he believed. He’s one monkey that shows us the value of never giving in to dissenting voices, no matter what the evidence shows. And let’s not forget Curious George. Though George has worn many hats through the years—fireman, cyclist, doctor—and been awarded a medal of honour, he’s probably best known for his irrepressible spirit, his contagious sense of wonder and his abiding love for his friend and mentor, the Man with the Yellow Hat.

As you can see, it doesn’t take a fancy degree from some government-accredited institution to benefit from studying primates. In fact, if there’s any lesson in the Duke study, it’s that we don’t need dowdy old “science” at all. Why should we spend our national juice on stuff like particle accelerators and comet rockets when we could be looking at J.Lo’s hindquarters or Brad Pitt’s face? Let us abandon these evolutionarily inadvisable pursuits and look, as nature intended, to our alpha-human celebrities for guidance in all things.