Of the rationality of chimps

Posted on August 27, 2010


Culture is a conspiracy.

That’s not a theory.  That’s part of the definition.

Monkey see, monkey do.  (catchphrase)  Applied to children, descriptive of their imitative behaviour, and signalling to them—through insult and teasing—that their imitative behaviour in the present instance is not desirable.

Thus insulting the monkey.

No monkey sees or does so slavishly as human children do.

That’s why they’re monkeys and have bananas, and humans are humans and have basketball, beer bellies, lipstick, Muddy Waters, civilization, fried chicken and cell phones.  Monkeys are merely rational while humans are cultural.

Cultural wins.  So far.

But that doesn’t make us rational.

The proof is in a recent experiment.  Scientists taught both chimpanzees and human children how to get into a box and extract a treat.  The method they taught, while effective, contained a number of extra moves which were not essential to the goal.  You could get into the box without them.

The scientists then replaced the original boxes with identical boxes made of glass, where the underlying mechanism of the box became obvious.  Also obvious was that some of the motions taught to both chimpanzee and human children didn’t really help them attain the treat.  Because they weren’t necessary the chimpanzees quickly adapted and left them out.

The human children continued as before.

Human children are not less intelligent that chimps.  What was obvious to chimps was therefore even more obvious to the human children.  Yet the chimps reacted rationally to the new information and the human children did not.

And that’s because what’s wise is more effective than what’s right.

What the children gained by being irrational was the sum total of what a human society can learn.  What the chimp gained by being rational was the sum total of what a chimp can learn.  Bigger may not be better—and society is bigger, obviously, than an individual—but it’s smarter.

By subsuming his or her own rationality to the rationality of the collective, to knowledge taught rather than knowledge experienced, the human child gains both the means to become part of that collective and live within its protection, but also to partake of anything that collective learns.  Collectives can go egregiously wrong, and fail spectacularly because of it, but an individual without the collective merely dies.

Of course, as women, children, Jews, Africans, gays, lepers and atheists can tell you, there are flaws to the system.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

To help it work better, so that women, children, Jews, Africans, gays, lepers, atheists, and even Republicans can flourish, it doesn’t hurt to understand that that what we’re talking about—one of the foundations of human society and thus one of the foundations of everything that human society has accomplished—is itself irrational.

Understanding the irrational is one of the first steps in taming and making use and moving beyond its raw and simple message.

Our understanding of the irrationality of human culture tells us that children will believe what they are told over and beyond what they see themselves.

Understanding that should make us very careful what we tell our children.  It is possible they will believe us to the detriment of their own survival.

It also tells us that we probably ourselves believe irrational things and have no idea they are irrational.

You know.  Cultural beliefs.

Like justice.  Mathematics.  Basketball.