Tool Module: Primatology
Anyone who observes apes or monkeys is immediately struck by the resemblances between their behaviour and our own. Their ways of mothering, of playing, of displaying dominance, of forming coalitions–all are directly reminiscent of human behaviours. In this sense, primatology can shed new light on human behaviour patterns and help us to understand them.
Here are a few examples.
Ethnocentrism is a universal phenomenon in human societies. In extreme cases, it can spill over into xenophobia and racism.
This phenomenon is also generalized in apes and monkeys. But to avoid making overly direct analogies, primatologists refer to it as “intergroup hostility”. This distrust becomes apparent the moment that two different groups of the same species of monkeys encounter each other, and it is inversely proprotional to the degree of familiarity between the members of the two groups.
Such behaviours, which we have inherited, go so far back in evolutionary time that we will probably never be able to rid ourselves of them completely. But this does not mean that we have to be slaves to them. We can overcome or work around our predispositions, whether genetic or behavioural, if we are aware of them and have the tools we need to do so. By far the best tool that human beings have developed for this purpose is language, a tool that the other primates lack. Through language and education, we can become more familiar with people from other backgrounds and thus reduce tensions between us and them. For example, we might urge our children to go play with the new immigrant kids on the block, to get to know and understand them.
Here’s another example. Ethnologists who study the various types of reproductive behaviour in human societies have found that most of them are polygynous (one man with many women), while others are monogamous. Only a very small proportion are polyandrous (one woman with many men). Ethnologists try to explain this complex variability using the tools of their discipline. But it might help them to know that among all primates, and among mammals in general, polygyny is the basic mode of reproduction.
Even better, if the ethnologists took an evolutionary perspective, focusing specifically on the theory of sexual selection (one of the behavioural theories for which there is the most evidence), they could take their explanation even further.
It all comes down to the inequality of the initial investments made by male and female parents. In mammals, it is the females who bear the young, give birth to them, and nurse them, all of which impose significant physiological limitations on the number of children that each female can produce. But males are not limited in this way. The more females they fertilize, the more descendants they will have. For this reason, among primates, males compete for females, while females are much more selective in their choice of partners.
All this background sheds interesting light on monogamy in societies such as our own. First of all, it makes it much easier to understand why so few societies are perfectly monogamous. Second, because human beings are born so immature and defenceless, we have developed paternal childcare behaviour like no other species. This can give us some small idea of the kind of pressure that may have militated in favour of a long-term association between men and women.
A knowledge of human beings’ ancient phylogenetic inheritance can thus enhance the explanations offered by social scientists. To deliberately avoid taking advantage of this knowledge would amount to a rather unproductive form of intellectual “territoriality”.
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