Monkeys discover the world’s oldest profession, discomfort ensues

This has really nothing to do with anything – except the possibly hard-wired impulses of human nature – but I couldn’t help but be fascinated by it.

Several years ago, a group of Yale economists led by Keith Chen taught, through a series of Pavlovian exercises, a group of capuchin monkeys to use money. The monkeys were given tokens, and though they didn’t understand at first, they soon found they could exchange them for different morsels of food, and began to value them. They coveted the tokens, protected their own stash, and stole them from each other. The focus of the experiment was to see how the monkeys responded to certain economic incentives, as different monetary situations were put to them. For the most part, they behaved as expected.

The most interesting part of the experiment was completely unforeseen by Chen and his fellow economists, and came about by accident. As reported by the New York Times:

Something else happened during that chaotic scene, something that convinced Chen of the monkeys’ true grasp of money. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)

A relatively short amount of time removed from understanding the use of money, a male monkey paid a female monkey for sex. But wait, it gets better, with how uncomfortable the Yale experimenters were with this new development (and here I’ll refrain from making any jokes about Yale economists being uncomfortable with sex):

This is a sensitive subject. The capuchin lab at Yale has been built and maintained to make the monkeys as comfortable as possible, and especially to allow them to carry on in a natural state. The introduction of money was tricky enough; it wouldn’t reflect well on anyone involved if the money turned the lab into a brothel. To this end, Chen has taken steps to ensure that future monkey sex at Yale occurs as nature intended it.

This is based on the premise that there is something basically and morally wrong with prostitution, and even that the monkeys were being, I don’t know, subjugated somehow by engaging in it under the watch of responsible humans. But I’m thinking, maybe not. Maybe this is natural behavior. In the case of the monkeys it couldn’t seem to be anything other than natural. Maybe this is the nod and wink from nature finally and forever bestowing a label of acceptability on what has been touted as mankind’s oldest profession (and monkeykind’s newest), by virtue of it being an apparently innate institution, like language or use of tools. Prostitution has always been a point of contention, at least somewhat, in this country and the world at large, over issues such as women’s rights, government intrusion, labor law, and the purview of state law. Particularly since it is a legal and regulated profession in some places – places in which, some argue, the profession is a lot more healthy and has a lot less victims – the debate over both the legality of prostitution and its moral status has for a long time been an open question to some. Maybe we can take the actions of these brave, pioneering, civil rights-minded capuchins as a signal from the natural world that says, “go ahead, trust your instincts, it’s really okay.”

Not exactly a bulletproof legal argument, I’ll grant you. But it’s interesting to think about. Maybe if the experiment had revealed something else about human nature, had gleaned some other modicum of insight into humanity that could be used as a starting point, from which to track the relative morality of paying for sex…

The ultimate overarching message of the study, encompassing the scope of its findings, is, depending on your view of humanity, either completely surprising or not at all – and I have to thank this article’s authors here, because I would have been compelled myself to point this out, had the articles author’s not summed it up so succinctly at the end, as such:

When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex. In other words, they behaved a good bit like the creature that most of Chen’s more traditional colleagues study: Homo sapiens.

I rest my case.


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