Saturday, August 1, 2015
Monkey See and Monkey Do
There are times I find myself entertaining the thought that my monthly edition of Scientific American magazine should be mailed in an old fashioned, plain brown wrapper to hide its identity, much in the way Playboy was done years ago. I especially feel this way some days after having to endure the idle but festering idiocy of some redneck or your average Bible thumper. These two stalwarts of today's society feel their country commonsense and high school education outweighs a scientist's years of training and research in their field of study or believes nothing matters since we are living in the End Times with the Rapture imminent. Given those types of people, a magazine that contains articles about human evolution and a universe that is many millions of times older than the six-thousand years evangelicals believe could be a life threatening possession if seen by the wrong person.
Even the newly civilized Southern suburbanite, one or two generations removed from redneckhood, living comfortably in their McMansions can be a problematic. Since much of their lifestyle is not only environmentally unsustainable but morally reprehensible because most of humanity, including many here in the land of the free and home of the brave, can't escape poverty. Science has a nasty habit of exposing the way the world works and the last thing suburbanites want to hear is how their lifestyle is screwing up the planet. Now don't get me wrong, all the groups I've mentioned love science when it provides things like ultra-huge televisions to watch the latest in reality shows or things like sleek jet fighters, new assault rifles, and other weapons to use against whatever boogeyman or horde God fearing Americans are battling this month.
Be that as it may when my Scientific American arrives I run the largely imaginary gauntlet to the mailbox and then back to my house and put it away to read. Yeah, despite my interest in science, finding the time and energy to read is often difficult. As an unwilling member of the suburbanite crowd required by the Nazi-like homeowners association to play the stupid game of house and lawn maintenance along with working third-shift at my job I always seem to have a pile of magazines to catch up on when times allows.
Just yesterday, after finishing up the damn lawns, I had a chance to read an article in the June issue of Scientific American that raised, for me, some intriguing questions as to the nature of human societies and their health. Entitled “The Networked Animal” it explains how many animal species spend their lives in complex social networks that both govern the behavior of the individual and the group as a whole.
Since such research has no direct payoff, it doesn't take much in the way of imagination to picture the reactions of various stunted and narrow minded libertarian folks jumping up and down and foaming at the mouth upset about how their precious tax dollars are being wasted. They would never understand how this research is important because it will ultimately allow development of improved conservation efforts for both individual species and even entire ecosystems. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the element of this research that is sure to send evangelicals into a good old-fashioned hissy is how the examination of other species social networks can tell us a lot about the ones humans belong. To them, Homo sapiens are the Big Guy's special creation and to think any other lesser species could teach us anything about ourselves smacks of atheistic blasphemy.
Despite all that what caught my attention though was the part of the article concerning the social networks of pig-tailed macaques. Like higher primates, which includes humans, these Old World monkeys have complex social groups made up of different networks. Individual macaques in the overall group can belong to different networks and have a higher or lower social status in each, just like humans who have to deal with people in a variety of settings.
Another similarity is that macaques share with humans is that our furrier cousins have a kind of police made up of the highest ranking individuals that keep the peace and stability among all the groups and its members. Being the curious primate myself, I immediately began wondering how macaque police compared to the human equivalent, a functional and competent government made up of laws. I'll admit upfront and say this all ties in with my extreme distaste that is actually borderline hate of economic libertarianism and how its followers pretty much believe that outside their family and close friends everyone else can go screw themselves.
The authors of the article themselves wondered what would happen if they removed these police-like individuals at an Emory University primate research site, which hosts a troop of 84 macaques. Needless to say, I found the results of their research quite enlightening.
As expected the removal of lower ranking macaques did little to upset the workings of the different social networks. But the removal of the individuals making up the macaque police in the troop led to an increase in aggression and decreased reconciliation after fights finally died out. After reading this I couldn't help but relate this to the widespread and semi-psychotic idea here in America that a heavily armed civilian population promotes a safe society. If you follow the twisted logic that if most everyone in a community goes around carrying at least a handgun countries like Somalia and Libya should be the most peaceful places on the planet.
Curiously enough the researchers also discovered that with the macaque police missing normal peaceful activities like grooming and play decreased. And that the number of friends— or in other words the social network connections of an individual decreased as well. In fact there was an overall breakdown in social cohesion of the group with the researchers actually using the word “balkanization” to describe the effect. The macaques kept breaking down into smaller, more homogeneous groups that rarely interacted with outsiders.
Economic libertarians absolutely start losing their self-centered minds whenever anything is mentioned that the community or society might need to supersede the omnipotent individual. Of course such people usually take this position because they already have their precious possessions safely guarded from what they regard as all the human leeches, which to them is everyone else on the planet. But when you compare the United States that at a minimum leans heavily towards the libertarian screw-everyone-else idea to the more socialistic Europeans who have more upper ward economic it appears that Americans are the losers despite of all the propaganda we spread around to ourselves. No matter what Ayn Rand and her followers want to believe about their fantasy a hard but honest look at libertarianism shows it to be just as bankrupt an idea as communism. Possibly even more so given that the totalitarian Soviet Union at least gave the United States a run for it money while the libertarian paradise of Somalia is hard pressed to protect its unfortunate but heavily armed citizens.
I'll admit rules and societal norms suck. I hate having to kowtow to the homeowners association and dream of the day I can let my lawn go absolutely wild along with being able to tell the Bible thumpers I have to associate with what I really think of their Republican Jesus. But then again I realize I am a member of something larger than myself so I'll just try and help make it a better place despite my feelings.