Tag Archives: Primates

Back to Basics

Thinking monkey
“The brain is the most important organ you have. According to the brain.”

It’s easy for us to remember that we’re the descendants of the great philosophical traditions of culture. It’s harder for us to remember that we’re also primates; we’re animals, with animal drives.

Science, mathematics, poetry, philosophy–and all abstract thought, really–seem to be the hallmarks of humanity. But separating out these accomplishments, seeing them as somehow apart from the rest of human experience, is intellectually dishonest. We haven’t accomplished great things as a species despite our animal natures. That nature is part of who we are.

Nature Vs. Culture

In Western Culture, we have a pretty skewed idea of what “animals” are. Specifically, I’m referring the everyday cosmology of the West, not the beliefs of scientists.

Graphic (1895) Spearing Wolf on Horseback in India
Does Culture really dominate Nature?

Here in the West, we believe that animals wholly belong to Nature. Further, we believe that Nature is somehow opposed to Culture. Separated from Culture, we see nature itself is, as Tennyson wrote, “red in tooth and claw.”

By placing animal nature in opposition to human nature, we’ve assigned a brutality to that “lower” animal nature. We forget, perhaps, that these two natures (intellectual and animal) aren’t actually in conflict, but working together to make us who and what we are.

In the common Western conception, human nature has been glossed as somehow less violent than the animal nature. Sometimes, we even complain about the brutality of people’s “animal natures” while chowing down on hamburgers made from a cow killed in a mechanized slaughterhouse.

I’m not some Luddite arguing against slaughterhouses and hoping that we go back to living in roaming bands and killing our protein sources with sticks. However, we could stand to open our eyes to both sides of ourselves, and recognize that we’re not as divorced from Nature, or our own natures, as we’d like to think.

Human Nature Isn’t Peaceful

We’re not really these beautiful, peaceful, ordered cultural beings who are somehow held down, or back, by our chaotic “animal” natures. Humans are social primates who use organization and hierarchy to keep us working together.

Recognizing our “animal” nature means going beyond seeing it as some violent, bestial urge barely held in check by our “higher” nature. We’re primates. We’re social animals. We’re territorial and competitive.

Everyday Western cosmology, influenced mostly by religion and philosophy, tells us that our true selves are separate from that animal side. Science, by contrast, tells us that we’re often slaves to it. The truth is somewhere in between–that it is our nature as humans to be both.

We’re not somehow caught between Culture and Nature. We’re part of both at the same time.


Primates and Territoriality

Squirrel MonkiesHumans are territorial primates.

A lot of human behavior can be understood through the lens of territoriality. Everything from land use to kinship and office politics is informed by the ways that humans, as primates, understand what is or isn’t ours.

Many primates live in bands and share territory with other primates. The world gets divided, if we’re going to be unscientific and anthropomorphic for a moment, into “insiders” and “outsiders.” How they, or we, react to these individuals is based on this simple classification.

When interacting with the insiders, we humans (as primates) use precedence to understand our relationships with others. In other words, those we share our territory with are subject to the same social order, and there are rules that govern how we interact. Not to put too fine a point onto it, primate rules of precedence affect how we communicate with those we know and have social relationships with. Primate interaction patterns for insiders affect how we talk to our bosses, our colleagues, and our employees.

Outsiders, on the other hand, do not fit into the same social patterns. Yes, there are still primate-interaction rules, but those rules are significantly different. Whereas we already have established relationships with other “insiders” or members of our band, when we deal with “outsiders” we are faced with a whole different set of questions.

This Land is My Land

Drawing the line between “our” people and “other” people takes a variety of forms. Maybe, at work in a small company, all the people involved are “our” people (according to Dunbar’s number). But when the company gets too large, we move away from this pattern, and start seeing just one part of the company as our own.

It is likely that the “information silo” problem often found in companies actually relates back to the cognitive limit of Dunbar’s number. The silo problem occurs when people working for the same institution align themselves primarily with their division or department. They don’t share information or resources with other institutional groups as they compete for power and recognition.

Dunbar’s number suggests that the number of people with whom we can have stable social relationships is cognitively limited. For humans, this number is usually between 100 and 230. In a large institution, these are the people with whom we share a “territory” in the primate sense. We might not like all of them–we are, after all, competing for precedence (recognition and raises)–but they are our everyday world.

Only Smiling on the Outside

Our interactions with “outsiders” follow very different social rules. Competition is less bounded by social rituals, and more likely to get nasty. Social status in the “inside” group means less, and precedence needs to be established again and again. To a certain extent, that means putting our best foot forward.

Instinctively, we see outsiders as competitors, even if, on paper, they are part of the same organization and share the same goals. We are instinctively less likely to share information and other resources with people who are outside our social group.

The silo problem isn’t just an organizational problem, and its roots can be traced back to our biological and cognitive capabilities. Simply making rules to wish or order the problem away doesn’t work very well.

That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. It doesn’t mean that the informational silo problem is insurmountable. However, understanding its cognitive roots makes it clear that simple solutions just aren’t going to work. Finding ways to recognize and advantage the whole group (department) for working with other groups (effectively sharing territory) will be more effective that simply telling them to stop.

Calls, Signs, and Twitter – From Laughter to LOL

Social media has heralded a “new”* era of communication, in which words are disembodied from any context where physical presence is a factor. Divorced from such basic primate realities, our big human fore-brains are set free to say nearly whatever we want.

Judy Daktari - Judy the Chimp (1967)When we speak with other people in face-to-face settings, there are whole sets of social clues that inform what we say and how we say it.

Social media provides both a safe distance and the near-automatic support of our social groups. We are physically distanced from our audience, and at the same time given near-instant verbal access to our own social support networks.

Using social media, we’re physically separated from our audience. This means we are less likely to take into account how such behavior will make others feel, and how they will react. The physical distance between us as speakers and those we are speaking about, and to, gives us the freedom to say whatever we want. It allows us to assume a context, instead of reacting to a social context that might not be in our favor–and might be acting on us at a level below our conscious mind.

Ooh and Ah!

Humans, as primates, have as part of our makeup a range of instinctive primate calls. Calls are not language, in that they are the same across the whole species, and can only refer to things that are happening in the “here” and “now.”

When we communicate using social media, instead of sharing actual gut, or instinctive, reactions, we ape them. Instead of sharing smiles and laughter, we “:),” “lol,” “LOL,” “rofl,” or even “roflmao.” We must translate our primate calls into language so that we can share it across a medium that doesn’t support the instinctive reactions that happen in person.

These primate calls are so important in social interaction that we find we need to fake them in social media. These new contexts, however, have changed many of the basic social rules. Additionally, since we’re trying to add primate calls to language, suddenly our grunts of approval and nods of recognition follow the logic of language.

What were once a fluid, instinctive reactions have become stilted and hedged about by the social rules. Instead of smiling at a joke, we ask “will laughing at this racy joke have social implications?” before sharing our reaction.

Illustration of The Boy and the Trolls by John Bauer (1915)
Welcome to the Internet

Is this shift toward social abstraction a good thing or a bad thing? As it turns out, it’s just a thing. These changes allow us to avoid sharing parts of ourselves that would otherwise embarrass others, but they also give a perfect space for anonymous Internet Trolls.

* We could argue that this is not a “new” era because all distribution of written material or even sending of ambassadors are efforts to circumvent the “logic” of primate interaction. On the other hand, we might say the era is “new” because so many have access to such technology.

We Are All Primates

Growing up in a golden age of post-Western Culture, it has seemed both odd and fitting to me that our current everyday ways of thinking about human behavior depend so much on earlier models. The models I’m talking about are not the ones that necessarily come from the hallowed halls of academia (though some do), but the ones that everyday people use, the ones that children learn at their parents’ knees.

In other words, I am not planning on looking at the world of cutting edge science; we do not, by and large, live in that one. Instead I am speaking of the cultural truths that shape our lives and our decision-making. When we want to get at understanding people, we need to look at both the rational person and that underlying biological stratum.

ChimpFor all that we believe in, or at least depend on, “science” and its answers, as I look around, I see that we are terribly dependent on pre-scientific ideas of the person in our everyday lives. Our ideas of people as “rational actors” or “inherently good” or “genetically predisposed” to various behaviors, are all things we have inherited from some part of Western Culture. Yet at the same time, we are not rational about these ideas at all.

It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. But it is a conceit to think of ourselves as somehow beyond all that.

Living in Tension

Our spoken models of human behavior, the ones that we subscribe to in our everyday speech, and the ones we enshrine in our laws, policies, and business decisions, speak of people as rational products of 16th century enlightenment, 18th century political liberalism, and 19th century notions of progress. We tie these all together with 20th century ideas of modernization and globalization to become “modern” people.

Western culture is not simply a product of these new ideas, but something that ties back thousands of years to Medieval Europe, the Roman Empire, Classical Greece, Ancient Egypt, and the first cities in Babylonia.

But there is another side to being human. We are not just these cultural constructions, however ancient, but also messy biological animals. Our “selves” are not one or the other, but exist in a tension between these two positions—the rational thinker driven by choice and the often territorial, instinct-driven primate.

Rationality Is a Duck


One of the traditions that we have inherited from the Enlightenment is a rejection of the “animal” side of ourselves. We speak as if, by rejecting that half of ourselves, we can become somehow more “pure.”  This is not as successful as we would like it to be. Instead, by forcing these parts of ourselves into hiding, we create a more complicated landscape where truths we have closed our eyes to shape our movements and inform our decisions.

As any advertiser knows, putting an attractive woman in the picture with a car makes it more appealing to a certain demographic. This is not rational, but it works.

When we try to analyze human behavior under the assumption that it is rational, and that we make choices for reasons, we trip ourselves up. Sure, I have reasons, and you have reasons, but in the end, when we look at aggregate patterns of human behavior they indicate that there are some things going on that have more to do with non-rational decision-making.