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Monkey business

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 27 April 2018

I have never been the greatest fan of PETA, the radical animal rights organisation (“People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals”).

Don’t get me wrong, I love animals, usually medium-rare.

But PETA’s opposition even to sheep farming for wool leaves me cold. Their science behind linking dairy products and autism is milky. And depicting women Playboy magazine-style may be an attractive but not necessarily effective way of protesting against fur.

However, PETA’s latest publicity stunt made me rethink my prejudices. The activists funded a lawsuit to help a smiling monkey called Naruto.

The crested macaque had used a photographer’s camera in 2011 to do what many people of a similar developmental level do. He took a picture of himself, grinning. Apparently, it allowed the owner of the camera to make some money from royalties.

PETA saw the crying injustice in this and, starting in 2015, took the unsuspecting photographer through the US legal system, claiming the royalties belonged to the monkey. Three years and substantial legal fees later, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that monkeys cannot hold copyright.

It is a sad ending to a story which would have deserved more thought. Because if monkeys can take perfect selfies, why stop at copyright?

For all we know, monkeys are skilled investors. In the 1970s, economist Burton Malkiel hypothesised that efficient markets should work so well that blindfolded primates throwing darts at a newspaper stock listing should make good choices. Years later, the Wall Street Journal tested it and saw the monkeys beat professional investors.

Research has also revealed that monkeys show a good understanding of ethics and justice. Try rewarding capuchin monkeys unfairly in experiments, and you get an appreciation of the moral roots of the Occupy movement.

But it is not just that monkeys are doing such impressive things. It is also that we human perform so poorly on cognitive tasks.

After decades of behavioural research, we know where our species’ limitations lie. Psychologists have by now identified not fewer than 175 biases. They range from “Ambiguity effect” (the tendency to avoid options for which missing information makes the probability seem “unknown”) to the Zeigarnik effect (that uncompleted or interrupted tasks are remembered better than completed ones).

Given all that, perhaps monkeys are the better humans?

In which case we should give them the vote and hope that they establish METH: Monkeys for the Ethical Treatment of Humans.

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