Of monkeys and men


6a00d8341c630a53ef011279446c4a28a4-800wiOftentimes we are reminded of the thwarted “best laid plans of mice and men” although, as the comedian Eddie Izzard once mused, it’s hard to imagine what exactly the best laid plans of mice actually might consist of.

But now it seems that we’ve had it wrong all along – and on two counts. Firstly, the original Robert Burns poem – pithily titled To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough – refers to “The best laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men”.  I always thought that mice having plans was a tad far fetched. But scheming mice, that’s another thing entirely. I’ve had first hand experience of some of those in the less salubrious rented accommodation I’ve lived in.

Secondly, it now seems that it’s not mice that make the plans – it’s monkeys. Or a Swedish chimp called Santino, pictured, to be precise. Yes, scientists all over the world are going ape about an article just published in Current Biology magazine. Since I can’t recall ever having bought a copy of this no doubt excellent journal, I am relying on information reported elsewhere that Santino, resident of a Swedish zoo for the last 12 years or so, has consciously planned hundreds of stone-throwing attacks on the visitors ogling him in his cage.

The keepers at Furuvik Zoo found that the cheeky chimp collected and stored stones to later use as missiles. He gathered up the stones whilst in a calm state, prior to the zoo’s opening. Then, he lobbed them at the visitors who were getting him agitated hours later. And who can blame him, I ask? I’d probably do the same.

But this, say the experts, suggests that Santino was able to anticipate a future agitated mental state – something that has been difficult to definitively prove in animals – and make plans for it. Unable to readily access his hypnotherapist, his anger management tapes, or an innocuous Smooth Classics CD to soothe his addled nerves, Santino chucked igneous remnants at his tormentors.

“I bet there must be a lot of these kinds of behaviours out there,” the research’s author Mathias Osvath is quoted as saying, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find them in dolphins or other species.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like animals. I really do. But, quite apart from the fact that I find it hard to believe that a dolphin could ever handle stone throwing with his little flippers (although I am sure he could spit a sardine at an annoying spectator as he leaps through his hoops), I think this is another one of those stories where well-meaning animal enthusiasts attempt to prove that animals really are the same as humans.

Take www.elephantartgallery.com, for example. “Here,” it says, “you will find original paintings that are made by elephants using their own creativity and volition, entirely unaided or directed by human hand.” And what, pray tell, do these fine examples of elephant art look like? Well, exactly the kind of images you’d expect if you stuck a paintbrush up the nostril of an elephant swinging his trunk. I am sure the titles of the pictures on sale there – including “Deeply Moved”, “Angels will Prevail” and “Flames of Passion” – are not the creations of elephants, unaided or directed by human beings. Elephants happily christen their paintings with the same trumpeting sound they use for everything else – and no doubt subsequently baptize them too with other creative outpourings. When an elephant comes up with something remotely resembling the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa, then I will be willing to accept that animals are the equals of human beings.

And what of the highly intelligent dolphin? “Dolphins are often regarded as one of Earth’s most intelligent animals,” says the Wikipedia entry on these lovable creatures, “though its hard to say just how intelligent  dolphins are.” Well, of course it is! They don’t talk. They click!

“Dolphins are so clever that they break sponges off and put them on their snouts to protect them while foraging”. That’s truly remarkable. If any human being did that, they would be considered bonkers. When it’s a dolphin, absolutely brilliant! But when did the first dolphin land on the moon? Who was the first dolphin to perform a heart transplant? Or even sauté his favourite plankton in garlic butter? It’s not the same is it?

“The animal,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes, “although gifted with sensibilities is utterly bereft of consciousness, absolutely out of touch with the world of consciousness and spirit. The animal possesses no powers by which it can make discoveries which lie beyond the realm of the senses. It has no power of intellectual origination. For example, an animal located in Europe is not capable of discovering the continent of America. It understands only phenomena which come within the range of its senses and instinct. It cannot abstractly reason out anything. The animal cannot conceive of the earth being spherical or revolving upon its axis. It cannot apprehend that the little stars in the heavens are tremendous worlds vastly greater than the earth. The animal cannot abstractly conceive of intellect. Of these powers it is bereft. Therefore these powers are peculiar to man and it is made evident that in the human kingdom there is a reality of which the animal is minus. What is that reality? It is the spirit of man. By it man is distinguished above all the other phenomenal kingdoms. Although he possesses all the virtues of the lower kingdoms he is further endowed with the spiritual faculty, the heavenly gift of consciousness.”

So there we have it. It is clear that there is much to learn still about the animal kingdom, and God bless the biologists and scientists who get excited when they discover the project management abilities of baboons and the excellent budgeting skills that locusts demonstrate.

To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man” says Bahá’u’lláh. That is true. But I wonder if that works mutatis mutandis.


3 Responses to “Of monkeys and men”

  1. I wonder, if it were up to the elephant himself, would he actually have entitled his painting ‘Soft Bondage?’

    As usual, GREAT piece rob! You should release a book in a year – I will buy it!

  2. 2 layli

    “Dolphins are so clever that they break sponges off and put them on their snouts to protect them while foraging”. That’s truly remarkable. If any human being did that, they would be considered bonkers.

    I love this. Very funny. Very true.

    So many artists and novelists present humans as being no better than animals.. we need more from this angle..

  3. 3 Sina

    Interesting read Rob, thought you might like to see this.

    Although the trainer must have done one in advance and trained to Elephant to copy, it still is very speacial 🙂

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