What Humans Can Learn From Monkeys

We are exploring the sometimes creepy, always fascinating distance between genes and behaviors. In this entry, I wish to illustrate a dramatic example of how nature and nurture interact, not by examining humans, but by considering some genetic next-door neighbors: vervet monkeys. This is a great example of  “Learn from your parents — it’s good for you!” without a human parent in sight.

Vervet monkeys have interesting predator vocalizations, and even something of a vocabulary. The animals appear to be born with this ability — there’s our nature. As we shall see, however, the application requires some practice — and that’s our nurture. This is easily seen in vervet monkey foraging behaviors, whether the animals are searching for food on the ground or in the trees.

Vervet monkeys have a vocalization for the warning “Run, you idiot, there’s a snake on the ground!”, for example. When an adult vocalizes this warning, the whole tribe runs into the trees, and everyone is safe. They have another word for “Run, you idiot, there’s a predatory bird in the air!” When an adult vocalizes this warning, the whole tribe dives to the ground, and everyone is safe one again.

Note that I italicized the word “adult” throughout the previous paragraph. That’s because when the tribe hears a youngster vocalize either the snake or bird warning, the tribe doesn’t do anything. The members wait until they hear an adult say it. Why do they pause? Because the little ones often get the vocabulary mixed up. They have not yet learned the correct application of their handy early warning system.

The adults aren’t trying to be obnoxious. They are trying to avoid a disaster. Imagine the tragedy if the whole tribe responded to a juvenile’s call to hit the dirt when the little guy saw a snake. The funny cartoon version has him saying sheepishly, “Oops. I meant, trees” — but the deadly real world version is “no more tribe.” Little vervets may be born with the ability to warn others, but they have not yet been instructed on its proper use. They will eventually learn the correct behavior by persistent interactions with older members of the tribe, but the instruction set is not innate. They may have been born with pre-loaded vocalizing software. That doesn’t mean they know how to use it.

A very similar situation between biological ability and social experience is observed with humans, examples of which we will explore in the next few entries. We may come into this world with some pretty sophisticated DNA, but like our primate cousins, that is no guarantee we know how to use it.


Cecil Van said...

This is so interesting, I am very impressed by the language of monkeys, this is so cool! I have never though they are that intelligent!

Michelle Gone said...

We, humans, should try to see wisdom and lessons in the animal kingdom, because we lack the most important thing that wilderness demonstrates - peace and harmony tat the urban jungle misses.

Dr. Rodriguez said...

Peace and harmony in the animal kingdom?
You must be referring to the Disney version of the Animal Kingdom, where Goofy visits Donald Duck for conversation, not to feed on Donald.