We shouldn't do something because it's right but because scientists have learned monkeys do it. That seems to be the gist of Adam Cohen's editorial in the NY Times today (liberated-from-the-archive version here). The essay argues: Capuchin monkeys are apparently "hard wired for fairness" in food distribution, etc. Humans are like capuchin monkeys. Therefore, our legal system should be more fair.
Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, chose capuchin monkeys because capuchins are among the few primates along with men and chimpanzees that hunt cooperatively. Team hunting has evolutionary advantages, allowing a species to capture prey, like squirrels, it otherwise could not. In many monkey societies the dominant male eats what he wants, and the others fight over the scraps. But in societies like those of capuchins and humans in which hunting is done cooperatively, food is more equitably distributed.
Here's where the logic gets dicey: "The dominant male eats what it wants and the others fight over the scraps" isn't just a paradigm of "many monkey societies" but many human societies as well. Didn't we just depose a dictator who "built palaces while his people starved"? Didn't we just give a huge tax break to the top 1% of income earners in this country? We may all have an instinct for fairness, but whether it's expressed in our behavior--and our laws--is culturally determined. So why the appeal to evolution? Why does Cohen look to the lower primates for role models when there are libraries of legal, religious, and philosophical thought addressing issues of equity and fairness? Answer: because he's a sentimental sap. "Aw, look at the cute monkeys."

- tom moody 9-21-2003 8:16 pm

Forget not the humble Bonobo.
- mark 9-26-2003 8:22 am

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