September 21, 2003


Monkeys strike for justice: Capuchin umbrage suggests sense of fairness extends beyond humans. (JOHN WHITFIELD, 18 September 2003, Nature)

Monkeys strike for equal pay. They down tools if they see another monkey get a bigger reward for doing the same job, US researchers have found.

The experiments show that notions of justice extend beyond humans, says Sarah Brosnan of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. This is probably an innate ability that evolved in our primate ancestor, she believes: "You need a sense of fairness to live in large, complex groups."

Brosnan and her colleague Frans de Waal taught brown capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) to swap plastic tokens for food. Normally, monkeys were happy to exchange a token for some cucumber.

But the monkeys took offence if they saw a neighbour getting a grape for a token. In about half of such trials, the short-changed capuchin either refused to hand over its token, or rejected the reward. Some threw the token or cucumber clean out of their cage.

The animals' umbrage was even greater if another monkey got a grape for nothing. About 80% rebelled in some way in this situation. [...]

Only female monkeys show this pique, the researchers found. Males were much less sensitive to inequality. Their minds may have been on other things, says Janson: "Males care about sex, and females care about food. The males might not consider the food differences worth worrying about."

Thanks to Bob Hawkins, for pointing out that the story quoted below had left out the vital fact of gender differences in behavior. We particularly like that twist because it tends to confirm our Grand Unified Theory, that everything just comes down to the eternal war between security and freedom, with females being generally (though not exclusively) more inclined towards security, for obvious reasons.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2003 3:11 PM

I think the story is stretching re the "fairness/equality" angle. Is there anything in the study to show that this is not simple envy?

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 21, 2003 6:43 PM

What's the difference between envy and insistence on fairness/equality?

Posted by: oj at September 21, 2003 9:09 PM

Assuming you're not being rhetorical, I'd say that envy is a simple resentment, a narrow and rivalrous longing for something belonging to another. Fairness requires being dispassionate and impartial. The former is something we share with many animals, but the latter is not.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 22, 2003 2:13 AM

That's what fairness and justice require from one standpoint, but if the Left equates them with equality, that only when things are equal has justice been done, then how does that differ from envy?

Posted by: oj at September 22, 2003 7:44 AM

Well, I was only commenting on the experiment. I think the experimenters were a little too quick to see fairness instead of envy. I agree that the Left does muddy the waters on the distinction between envy and fairness.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 22, 2003 2:21 PM