Monkey see, monkey do: Celebrities in the Ape order

Originally published – January 2015

Modern celebrity culture is in simplest terms, the adoration of people you’ve never met because they’re perceived as doing something better than you can currently do it.  Whilst its inclusion under the heading of topical news is debatable, modern celebrity culture has rung in the New Year with a couple of its annual offerings.  At one end of the spectrum, Celebrity Big Brother kicked off its implausibly commissioned 15th series over on the TV hospice that is Channel 5.  At the more glittering end, the Golden Globe awards provided journalists with the chance to meticulously dissect the outward appearance of every woman in attendance whilst talking a bit about films.  Indeed, celebrity culture is so ingrained in Western society that it seems almost impossible to imagine a time when the news wasn’t dominated by celebrity gossip and embarrassing nip-slips.  However, the reasons behind this might not be so much Sociological as they are Biological.

Primates, the group comprising monkeys and apes (including us), offer up the perfect candidates for biologists looking to study natural causes for human behaviour.  Primates exist in many different types of social groups.  For example, Orangutans, genus Pongo, live solitary lives, whilst Gorillas, genus Gorilla, live in groups with a dominant breeding male and many females, termed Polygyny.  In contrast, some primates such as Pygmy Marmosets, Cebuella pygmaea, live in groups with a single female breeding with multiple males that assist in child rearing, termed Polyandry.  Indeed, most primate species are supremely social, so much so that the part of the brain that deals with group behaviours is largest in primates that live in the biggest groups.  By studying the way that primates behave with one another in groups, we can begin to suggest ideas to explain certain human behaviours.

This was the thinking behind an experiment published in 2005 by a group of scientists from Duke University.  Dr Michael Platt and colleagues studied Rhesus Macaques, Macaca mulata, a species that live in polygynous groups like Gorillas do.  They wanted to test whether monkeys that were low down in the pecking order would pay a cost to look at pictures of the high ranking males, in a similar vein to asking how much money would your local tesco worker pay to look at pictures of Ryan Gosling.  In Rhesus Macaques, low-ranking males look away from their superiors to show submissiveness, lest they catch their eye and incur a serious smackdown. The opportunity to view high-ranking males therefore is likely a commodity worth investing in.  Platt offered low-ranking macaques the choice of a tasty juice in one direction, or an image of another macaque in the other.  Despite thirst, low-ranking macaques would prefer to view the image of the other macaque, but only if that macaque was of high rank.   High-ranking macaques are the very embodiment of monkey celebrity; they’ve got food, power and sexual magnetism.  What they also noted was a degree of self-awareness, and so the value given to the macaque image depended on the ranking of the macaque making the choice, with higher-ranking males caring less about looking at pictures of other top dogs.  This is probably why celebrities often complain about celebrity culture, as it’s of little interest to them relative to the general public.

Another interesting finding during this study was that images of female macaque rear ends had the highest preference of all.  However, with an estimated 14% of all internet searches associated with pornography, this result was more amusing than surprising.

So, is our modern celebrity obsession a product of social consumerism and greed, or a natural and unavoidable inclination that we share with our close animal relatives?  Probably the former, as links between macaque behaviour and human behaviour have to be taken with a pinch of salt.  That said, the idea of animal celebrities is certainly an alluring one.

References:

Deaner, R. O., Khera, A. V., & Platt, M. L. (2005). Monkeys pay per view: adaptive valuation of social images by rhesus macaques. Current Biology, 15(6), 543-548.

Image Rights:

Brian Gratwicke, sourced via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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