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What One Monkey Mother Could Teach Humans About Themselves

What One Monkey Mother Could Teach Humans About Themselves

Some rhesus macaques in Agra. Photo: Thomas Schoch/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the first week of May, two videos had social media agog. Both involved monkeys, one ‘robbing’ a Delhi ATM and the other riding by on a bike. At first glance, these videos seem to offer brief moments of amusement in an otherwise grim time. But why bother with such trivia now? Isn’t this fiddling while Rome burns?

Well, a ‘post-coronavirus’ scenario will certainly require a radical reassessment of the deep, conflicted relationship between human societies and their environment, between us and ‘them’, between our habitats and ‘theirs’. That is why the ‘monkey tricks’ we saw captured on video earlier this month don’t just offer fleeting moments of shock or levity. They are a guide to our past – and to our uncertain future.

Indians’ relationship with simians is the stuff of legend. Millions venerate the ‘monkey-god’ Hanuman. Myths such as one about the vanara sena1 that helped King Ram build a bridge to Sri Lanka abound. Temples across the country shelter astonishingly large troupes of monkeys; Haridwar – literally ‘god’s gateway’ in Hindi – is just the most famous of these sites.

Research in the biological sciences around the world also includes substantial focus on primates. That humans share more than 90% of their DNA with the great apes implies that we share several traits with them. For this reason, vaccine trials, not excluding present ones for the coronavirus, are often conducted on primates. Even without knowing it, then, primates greatly contribute to our well being – sometimes at great cost to their own.

These issues of human interaction with simians and other species have been around at least since Charles Darwin’s work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). In this book, Darwin examines the sphere of culture and emotion. He reports on the findings of a questionnaire that he sent to 34 countries, including India, asking how 16 different emotions are expressed across cultures. Through this exercise, Darwin sought evidence for his view that all humans share basic emotions with animals owing to a common evolutionary ancestry. Few will deny that we are witnessing such emotions come to the fore in a heightened manner during the present crisis.

In our research at IIT Delhi, based partly on Darwin’s insights in the Emotions volume, we investigated the feelings that humans, especially children and their caregivers, experienced as they navigated the seas of social survival. The video below documents a small part of what we discovered, by focusing on a mature female monkey, specifically a rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta).

As viewers will notice, the ‘baby’ that the monkey ‘mother’ is holding is actually a puppy. She kisses and fondles it, runs away when she thinks her child is in danger, takes shelter with her partner and another male, possibly her brother, who support her ‘decision’ to ‘adopt’ this baby. We observe emotions such as love, trust, bravery, fear, panic, anxiety, anticipation and so on throughout the video.

It happens that this particular simian mother can’t have children of her own because male monkeys in the area have been clinically neutered. So she ‘steals’ a puppy from the locality and attempts to bring it up as her own. In our footage, she hardly lets go of her baby for an instant, bolting as fast as her heavy and precious burden will allow, especially when the alpha male is nearby.

We also hear local villagers talk about how they have witnessed this strange behaviour for some time and how the current pup is in fact one of a series, since the adopted pup always dies. This is because the simian mother treats the puppy just as she would a monkey-baby, feeding it grass and carrying it with her as she leaps from height to height. It is no surprise that the pup eventually dies from injuries and starvation.

This clip teaches us three things at a minimum.

First, it reminds us that animals and humans have shared common spaces for millennia. If we interfere with these spaces, for example by neutering male monkeys, it can have unforeseen, even dangerous, consequences. In this film, the interacting species are humans animatedly discussing the actions of monkeys; the simian troupe that have to assimilate a dog into the everyday routine of their lives; and the small pup at the still centre of this cross-species drama.

Today, we need to understand and respect these relationships (with bats, rats, tigers, bees, bacteria, viruses and plants) more than ever because they determine who we are.

The fact is that we are beings designed by nature for touch-contact with each other – as well as with several animal species. Physical distancing may work as an excellent temporary survival strategy. We will, however, have to develop far more innovative ideas in proxemics studies, and invest in understanding technologies of desire and the political economy of inter- and intra-species inequality before humans manage to overcome, even in part, their ancient, touchy feely emotional coding.

Forgetfulness is biological but memorialisation cultural. Both shape us but the evidence thus far indicates that people always return to their old, ‘bad’ ways after pandemics, however harrowing. It could be the triumph of hope over experience to think that the reset button will be so easy to press this time round.

Second, the video teaches us that there can be individual differences between monkeys as there are among humans. Not all monkeys choose to rear puppies as their own offspring. Not all ride bikes or investigate ATMs.

This insight is important because it tells us that our own human cultures are simultaneously composed of individuals and collectives. Both concepts have great power and potential as we move into an age in which we will have to make increasingly difficult ethical and intellectual choices about our common environment.

Third, the video shows us that humans can learn from their mistakes in a way that other species cannot. The monkey mother in the video repeatedly picks up puppies even though they die on her, remaining a prisoner of her biological instincts. That is her tragedy. Ours is different: that even though we can reflect deeply on our emotions and instincts through language, even though we have the mental capacity to acknowledge our mistakes, we fail to do so. Our greatest gift – to argue passionately about something we call the ‘truth’ – can then become our greatest failing, making us prisoners not of our instincts but of our prejudices. That is our tragic flaw.

So it was wonderful to listen to the vociferous debate my students engaged in when I showed them our film. Some thought the macaque mother in question profoundly selfish, others that she was remarkably altruistic. Since the world recently celebrated ‘Mothers Day’, the students also debated whether a generic recognition of ‘baby-like’ characteristics in pets and other creatures might help species survive by triggering a generalised protective circuitry that induces compassionate emotions.

In the 19th century, Darwin knew little about genetics but I imagine he wouldn’t have been at all surprised to learn about the current virus that spilled over from bats to humans – nor would he have contested the pivotal role empathy can play in preventing humans from self- and others’ destruction. Towards the end of The Origin of the Species, he wrote presciently:

In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that we may be at the threshold of that “distant future”.

Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a cognitive linguist and writer. She teaches at IIT Delhi.

The author is very grateful for the funding received for the ‘Language, Culture and Emotion’ project from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), 2010-2014. She was Principal Investigator; her co-PIs were Purnima Singh and C.A. Tomy. She also wishes to profusely thank the filmmaker, Muneesh Tarsem, for his work on the rhesus macaque troupe in Himachal Pradesh.

  1. Monkey brigade

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