I’ve developed a massive scientific pet peeve. For some, theirs is the term, “missing link” (which I abhor too) or dumbing down or sensationalizing science–to each their own. My personal one, which I’ve been growing for the past few months is the decision of scientific literature and media to explain primate behavior as being “more like us.”
We can prove evolution happened. We can also put it in reverse too. It’s not just a theory–it’s a fact. As my lecturer in my Anthro 105 course stated best, “A fact is something no rational individual argues against.” And assuming that most of these scientific writers believe in some course of evolution, it makes no fucking sense that anyone would refer to a primate “becoming like us.”
Instead, it’s more believable that we’re more like our ancestors. And here’s why:
Last night when I was leaving for my apartment, I saw a beautiful display of altruism: an older gentleman was having some difficulty moving his wheelchair across a very busy intersection of traffic. A girl, going the complete opposite way and seeming to be in a hurry (she was running and definitely did not have the shoes for it; so I assume she was meant to be somewhere and fast) stopped, turned around, and asked the older gentleman if he needed help. I wasn’t close enough to hear the exchange, but I saw the girl turn and help the older man to the other side and even for a little bit after that.
OK. So I don’t really have enough context to truly be declaring that to be altruism, but I think we can agree it was certainly a kind gesture and good deed; potentially at the expense of the girl if she had to be somewhere with high responsibility (maybe a job interview, actual work, a presentation–who knows). As such, I’m going to consider it altruism despite the lack of background knowledge.
If we establish altruism as the idea of performing an act of benefit to another individual at the potential cost to the actor, primates have been known to perform altruism, with observed rates depending on a given species and particular relationship to the receiving individual (obviously, you’re more likely to help family than most others), but some people disregard altruism towards kin as a nepostic means, which I certainly understand. As such, I’m going to avoid an example of that.
An example of not necessarily nepotistic altruism can be seen with any time an alarm call is given by an actor, warning others of the detection of a predator. Sometimes, this isn’t even necessarily of their own species, as observed by researchers investigating Diana monkeys (Cercopithecus diana) giving alarm calls that can be interpreted by other primates and even yellow-casqued hornbills (Zuberbühler 2000; Rainey et al. 2004). However, despite this obviously good deed for the other primates and hornbill–it comes at the cost for detection of the Diana monkey by revealing its presence and potentially exposing itself for the predator to detect.
Does it really benefit the Diana monkey for the other primates and hornbill to survive? Maybe, but not directly, although it certainly doesn’t hurt. Perhaps the hornbill is an excellent seed disperser so it propagates further generations of trees in which Diana monkeys prefer to use. Maybe the hornbill provides something for the Diana monkey–regardless, the direct link isn’t there.
Regardless, altruism isn’t just “human,” and nor are monkeys “becoming human.” It’s just getting in touch with our evolutionary roots.
Rainey, H.J., Zuberbühler, K., Slater, P.J.B. (2004). Hornbills can distinguish primate alarm calls. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, 271(1540), 755-759.
Zuberbühler, K. (2000). Interspecies semantic communication in two forest primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, 267(1444), 713-718.