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PLANET OF THE MONKEYS: have we gone far from the “smaller brothers”?

PLANET OF THE MONKEYS: have we gone far from the "smaller brothers"?
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Shot from the movie Planet of the Apes

Today everyone knows about empathy. But until recently, scientists did not perceive it as a topic for serious scientific research. The renowned Dutch primatologist and writer Frans de Waal doesn’t just think otherwise. He also knows how to look at human nature from an unusual side for us – through the eyes of animals. Let’s consider from this point of view our social emotions, traditions, hierarchies …

When you smile … the whole world smiles with you

Louis Armstrong




In his book Our Inner Ape, Frans de Waal correlated his vast experience with primates and human behavior. In his opinion, an inner monkey sits in any person. As befits primates, humans prefer to live in a small group rather than in isolation. They are just as curious, apt to admire alpha males in the political arena, power and sex.

The primatologist believes that most of the traits, and the opposite, humans inherited simultaneously from chimpanzees and bonobos. The first are power-hungry, prone to aggression and bloodshed. From this point of view, in the film cycle Planet of the Apes, the uprising of chimpanzees, and not some other apes, against people is “psychologically” justified. Bonobos, on the other hand, are more peaceful. They are very empathic.

According to de Waal, the larger the brain, the more empathy an animal is capable of exhibiting. But also great cruelty. The human brain is about 3 times the size of a monkey. Therefore, it is not surprising that such a terrible atrocity and the ability to compassion, as in the human race, we will not find in the animal world.




Not so long ago, language was seen as the source of the human mind, rather than a derivative of it. However, scientists have now found out that this is not the case. Carolyn Zan-Wexler, a world-renowned researcher of empathy in children, found that children are already able to comfort others from one year old – for them this is the same natural stage in development as the first step. Empathy in one-year-old babies appears long before the development of speech skills.

In dumb animals, for example, in the same cats and dogs, this phenomenon is also known. They know how to sympathize and console others and great apes. After a fight, individuals who did not participate in it often approach the victim, soothe, stroke and comb him out. If the cub falls from the tree, it is immediately surrounded by other monkeys, hugged and picked up.

In general, everything happens in the same way as in humans. Unless bonobos also practice comforting sex. However, Homo sapiens could easily be in a similar situation. Empathy can arise not only for their own kind, but also between an animal and a person. It was successfully demonstrated at the beginning of the last century by the psychologist Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots, who raised a young chimpanzee named Ioni. There are cases when a dog copied the lameness of its owner.




Empathy is an imitative ability, it is based on the perception of the state of another being as one’s own. Experiments have shown that we begin to relate worse to people who do not take our postures. We unconsciously repeat the gestures of others – we throw our hands behind our heads if others do it, and, repeating after our colleagues at meetings and conferences, we cross our legs, etc.

Bringing a spoon to the lips of a child, adults open their own mouth when the child has to open his own. It is not by chance that spouses who have lived together become similar to each other – their behavior and body language become closer. Body identification is widespread in animals. Monkeys copy the movements of injured relatives. Monkeys itch if they see another monkey doing it. Anthropoids yawn when they observe the same thing not only among congeners, but also when looking at other animals.

A research team from the University of Parma in Italy has found that macaques have special brain cells that are activated not only when a monkey grabs an object with his hand, but even when he looks like another is doing it.




Back in 1959, an article appeared with the provocative headline Emotional Reactions of Rats to the Pain of Others. It dealt with an experiment in which rats stopped pressing a lever to get food if the same lever sent a current into a neighboring cage where another rat was sitting. The empathy response is one of the strongest, in fact it is even stronger than the notorious love of monkeys for bananas.

In similar situations, macaques showed even greater restraint and control, inhibiting such an action than rats. Seeing that a neighbor was being shocked, the monkey refrained from pulling the lever to get food for five days, the other monkey for twelve. During the experiment, one monkey literally starved itself for 5 days so as not to hurt others, the second – as many as 12.

Responses like these are of immense survival value: if someone is afraid, perhaps you should start worrying too. If one bird in the flock suddenly takes off, all the other birds will also take off – even before they realize what is happening. The remaining individual can become someone’s prey. In humans, the unpleasant side of these natural reactions is collective panic.




Man really, in his social manifestations, has gone not so far from monkeys, but even from ordinary poultry. The term “pecking order” has become widely known, describing the behavior common in modern society. We owe the discovery of the “pecking order” to the Norwegian boy Torleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, who at the beginning of the 20th century kept records of observations of his favorite chickens.

He drew attention to cases of failure in the hierarchy – the “triangle”, where chicken A dominated chicken B, B – over C, and C – over A. When Thorleif grew up, he described regularities and violations of rank order in his scientific dissertation. Dominance hierarchies are characteristic not only for chickens, but also for other social animals, including humans. Pecking order increases the survival rate of one individual and the entire group. As it regulates access to resources and sexual partners, reducing the time, energy and risk of injury.

Compared to chickens, humans have more power to make the human hierarchy obvious in all sorts of ways, from the size of our offices to the cost of the clothes we wear. Some of them are quite bizarre. The strangest ritual of status confirmation belongs to Saddam Hussein, whose subjects were supposed to greet him with a kiss on the armpit. Perhaps the point of this action was to let them smell power? If so, how far have we gone completely developmentally from animals?




In humans, however, there are more subtle signs of status than size, bright color, strong smell or loud voice in animals. Scientists previously considered frequencies from 500 Hz and below in the human voice to be a meaningless low rumble that our ears hear. But in fact, he turned out to be a subconscious instrument of social influence.

Each person has different speech frequencies, but in the course of a conversation, people tend to equalize them to a uniform hum, and the one with a lower status is always adjusted. Analysis of Larry King’s TV show showed that the presenter specially adjusted his timbre to the voice of high-ranking guests, but less status guests, on the contrary, adjusted to the voice of King himself.

Plus, the preferences of Americans who voted in 8 presidential elections from 1960 to 2000 were also analyzed. Voters gave preference to the candidate who retained his own timbre over the one who adjusted. And on TV debates, according to statistics, the candidate with the dominant voice pattern always won. However, if you can still manipulate other people with the help of voice “adjustment”, then with body language the situation is much more complicated.




Animals are very sensitive to body language. But it turns out that there are times when people understand it as well as animals. Neurologist Oliver Sacks described how a group of speech-impaired patients once laughed hard at a television broadcast of President Ronald Reagan’s speech. They closely monitored facial expressions and body movements and laughed their head off.

The fact is that the president, whose speech seemed normal to people without speech impairments, cleverly combined misleading words and tone of voice. And only people with damaged brains and extremely attentive attitude to non-verbal information were able to determine by body language that he was lying.

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