Everybody knows the rules of engagement when riding in an elevator; either maintain your distance with eyes forward or pick up a small amount of idle chit chat to relieve some of the inherent tension. The behavior is surprisingly similar to what happens when you put two unfamiliar monkeys have been placed in a cage together. There, both will avoid eye contact at all costs to reduce the risk of aggression or they will groom each other.
Yes, grooming each other equates to small talk in the world of primates.
But is this similarity – and many others that involve behavior in social situations – really all that surprising? According to a new book published by University of Chicago’s Dario Maestripieri, definitely not.
According to Maestripieri, the way human interact with each other is – at least in part – controlled by genetics and evolves over time through natural selection. The monkey that walks into an elevator and shits on the other’s foot will – after all – occasionally not survive the encounter.
For example, game theory can explain the circumstances by which primates choose to cooperate or cheat, and when they decided to fight or fly. The rule book used by male macaques to become the alpha male of the group is the same followed by employees trying to climb the corporate ladder.
I have my questions on the subject, however.
It seems to me that different cultures have very different rules. The way you climb the corporate ladder might be very different in Japan. In fact, I think it probably is. Or tribes in Africa might behave very differently if stuck in an elevator for a few minutes with one another. I do think that there’s a bit of evolution at work here. These traits behaviors have evolved over time in different populations and manifested in different ways, just like skin color or lactose tolerance.
But are there really rules that all primates follow that has been handed down for hundreds of thousands of years from our common ancestors?
Also according to Maestripieri, when lovers exchange intimacies such as a long passionate kiss, they’re testing each other’s willingness to tolerate impositions and their commitment to the relationship. His simile in the monkey world is sticking a finger up another’s nose and waiting for a reaction.
I’m not sure I buy into that one, as kissing is rather enjoyable given the right partner, while having someone elses finger up your nose is not, even if it were Gisele’s.
Perhaps it’s like writing a story. Depending on who you ask, there are only so many original storylines that a story can take. All others are simply variations on the original. Similarly, there are only so many ways that people can behave in certain situations. Some of them are more likely to result in positive outcomes than others. Is that a result of behaviors evolving? Or is it a general rule of nature?
I’m sure I don’t know the answer.
But then again, Maestripieri has been studying primate behavior for 25 years and probably knows more about the subject than I. So perhaps I ought to just check out his book, Games Primates Play, and see if I buy into his conclusions myself.