Thursday, 29 September 2011

Monkeying around

I had the opportunity recently to spend a little while in the company of a marmoset.

A bit like this one:



He was cute, he ran around and up and down and generally behaved the way you’d expect a small primate to behave.

After a few moments in his company, and while the marmoset was still looking at me, I changed my position slightly and inadvertently moved my face briefly behind a vertical wooden strut. As my eyes emerged from the other side of the strut, the monkey had not merely moved his gaze to where I would appear, but had tilted his head slightly in the direction I had moved.

Intrigued, I ducked back behind the pole, and then ducked back in the direction from which I had just come. The monkey played along: he’d expected me one way, and I emerged the other, so both his gaze and his head jumped quickly to my new position.

Then the monkey ducked behind a tree trunk. And re-emerged, looking at me.

For the next five minutes, me’n’the marmoset played the game of
peek-a-boo. We used several different vertical blockages – the posts at the corner of his cage, the tree trunks inside his cage – but always with the same objective: to catch the other one out, and have fun.

Parents play this game with their infant children almost instinctively. If you have never had the pleasure, I heartily recommend it. It is a marvellous way to engage with a child who is 3 or 6 or 9 months old.

But with a monkey?

As the link above shows, the game is a key indicator of cognitive development. It is not possible to play this game with a fish. Or a dog, or a cat.

But with a monkey?

It begs big and fascinating questions. What is a game? Was the monkey really playing, or did it just seem that way? If a creature ‘seems’ to be playing, how would we know that it isn’t? Is ‘play’ some sort of universal indicator? Think of the way you can play with a cat or a dog; and think of how much effort we humans put into ‘play’; and think of the enormous range and varying complexity of games. Is peek-a-boo just simple chess?

And if play and cognitive development follow some sort of hierarchical pattern, why not other aspects of ‘the human condition’? Frans de Waal’s
work seems to show that morality and ethics – concepts supposed by many to be uniquely human and possible divine in origin – are evident among primates and are, in humans, merely more thoroughly evolved.

We are just monkeys with sophisticated communication skills. Maybe if we just came to terms with that a little more, we’d learn to relax a little.



PS Incidentally, the link to peek-a-boo cites Piaget, but – in my view – gives an incomplete account of the game. In my experience, there is an important feedback loop between the older player (i.e. the adult) and the younger player (i.e. the infant), in which a variety of responses (head movements, laughter, agitated hand movements and so forth) act as clues to each player. The game is, after all, being made up as the players go along, without a rule book or words; to play the game requires co-operative behaviour at a more intuitive, unprocessed level.

Also important is the fact that the two players are in intense eye contact. Indeed, it is the breaking and re-making of eye contact that lies at the heart of the game. The ‘object relations’ experiment described on the wiki link does not include this vital element, so does not comprise an accurate representation of the game. Piaget may be right to say that an infant has to have reached eight or nine months of age to play his version of the game; but I’ve certainly played it ‘properly’ with much younger babies.

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