Ritualized behavior? Chimps all throw rocks at the same tree – Ars Technica

CK MacLeod

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25 Responses

  1. Road Scholar says:

    Hard to know what to think about this. When I ran across this story a couple days ago the first thing that came to mind was to wonder if it’s some kind of territorial thing: either marking a boundary or a symbolic / ritualistic attack against the territory of a neighboring troop.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Road Scholar says:

      symbolic / ritualistic attack against the territory of a neighboring troop.

      Given that chimps have been observed throwing sticks and stones as weapons/hunting tools, “a game of target practice” doesn’t seem out of the question. And games can of course be “war play”.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Glyph says:

        Could be some combination of both I suppose. My only question is why those particular trees? As opposed to whatever target happens to be handy when the urge to play that way strikes them. Too bad we can’t just ask them. 😉

        BTW, everything I know about primatology I learned from Discover magazine and such. IOW, not much.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Road Scholar says:

          “These are the particular trees we’ve always thrown rocks at.”Report

          • Road Scholar in reply to Jaybird says:

            Indeed. But doesn’t that sound like a kind of ritual or tradition or culture or whatever you want to call it? I mean… what does calling something a ritual actually mean anyway? Is there anything more to it than a kind of behavioral inertia? What does that say about human rituals and traditions and, ultimately, the people who cling to them so fiercely?Report

            • Glyph in reply to Road Scholar says:

              Why do humans go to the archery range or the firing range for their target practice instead of just anywhere? Well, for one, it’s because that’s where it’s known that missiles will be flying, so watch your a*s.

              I mean, we can call that “ritual”, but it starts to have weird religious connotations; they are social animals, they have social conventions.

              One may be “don’t just start winging rocks around randomly, someone from your troop might get hurt; if you want to do that, do it at the Rock-Winging Place”.Report

  2. Chip Daniels says:

    This is why they won’t give me posting privileges here. They know I would splice a clip of a Trump rally with this article.Report

  3. Chris says:

    “Alright everybody, huddle up, huddle up. Is this everyone? Where’s Bill and his orangutan breath? Fuck it, someone’s just gonna have to fill him in later. Anyway, Susan here was hanging out in a tree earlier when she saw a pair of those ugly furless apes drop off a camera over there under in an abandoned termite mound. So we, Susan and I, were thinking we might do something to fuck with them. Any ideas?”

    “We could fling poop at it?”

    “What are you, a juvenile gibbon? Anyone else?”

    “Hit it with a rock?”

    “Well that’s just gonna break it, which kinda defeats the purpose.”

    “How ’bout we throw rocks at the tree next to it?”

    “Brilliant! They’ll spend years trying to figure out the significance of that. OK everyone, if you pass the tree, pick up a rock and throw it at it. And have fun, make a whole display out of it. Let’s confuse the hell out of those furless freaks.”Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Chris says:

      This comment was just breathtakingly marvelous in both concept and execution. I bow to you.Report

    • j r in reply to Chris says:

      This is pretty much how I think about every social science experiment that involves having undergrads play random games, except without the coordination cause, you know, they’re undergrads not orangutans.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to j r says:

        The one time I participated in a study that attempted to use some subterfuge, it was so poorly executed. But I think these were undergrads or maybe grad students learning how to run a study as opposed to actually running a study of any value.Report

        • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

          A high percentage of psychology experiments uses some level of deception. Most of them are fairly simple and participants are unlikely to see through them (e.g., instead of telling participants that the study is a memory study, you tell them that it’s a language processing study, so that they don’t actively work to try to memorize the sentences you give them), but in social psychology, they can get pretty elaborate and silly.Report

          • Kim in reply to Chris says:

            Yeah, most people don’t see through psychology experiments.
            Most people don’t get pissed off with the psychologists colluding to make them lose.
            Most people don’t get banned from freshman psychology experiments for cheating better than the experimenters did.Report

    • El Muneco in reply to Chris says:

      “Oh, hell. Who told the bonobos where the tree was?”Report

  4. Kazzy says:

    I remember at the zoo once I watched a polar bear repeatedly go back and forth across its pen, in and out of the water, kicking off the wall, in a VERY specific way. Each repetition was nearly identical to the last. I approached a zookeeper and asked, worried that the behavior indicated some sort of mental or emotional stress on the animal’s part.

    She responded with, “What do you think the bear would say if he saw you on a treadmill?”

    It was a good point. I’m not sure it was correct because the rationale for running on a treadmill is different — and likely requires all sorts of mental processes that the bear lacks. More than anything, it made clear that we really have no frickin’ clue how animal brains work. Hell, we barely even understand human brains.Report

  5. Kazzy says:

    What’s interesting is I’ve been batting around a post about that story about the monkeys in the cage who get sprayed when they climb to the top of a ladder for a banana. And eventually the monkeys start pounding on any monkey who approaches the ladder because they all get sprayed. Over time, they replace the monkeys one by one such that none of the original monkeys are there. No monkey in the cage has ever been sprayed. But they all still pound on any monkey approaching the ladder because that is what they’ve learned. They don’t know why they do it. They just do it. It is meant to be a criticism of, “We’re just doing what we always do.”

    But the problem I have with that story is that it fails to recognize that the monkeys are actually correct to pound on one another! Maybe they weren’t given the reason — meaning the lesson was incomplete — but unless things have changed, the monkeys are going to get sprayed if anyone goes up the ladder!

    Now, given that I’m pretty sure that story isn’t actually true (but, hey, if I’m wrong, correct me!), it does indicate the way in which “rules” can be handed down. Essentially, socialization and acculturation take place. I guess the question is does this happen in the animal kingdom? A book I’m currently reading suggests it does and highlights two groups of the same species of monkeys in similar but distinct habitats, one of which uses sticks to eat and the other of which doesn’t.Report

    • Guy in reply to Kazzy says:

      Well, we can also recognize – at least from your reduced version – that things might have changed. We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible. And it’s pretty reasonable for the monkeys, even if the story has been fully transmitted, to say, “Hey. Are we sure that’s actually going to happen? We don’t have a lot of evidence for it at this point.” And then they go test and it happens or it doesn’t.

      Basically, we can experiment: check and see if our ancestral knowledge actually describes reality by (occasionally, carefully) doing forbidden things. If bad things happen, back off, that rule was there for a reason and the reason was good. If not, try to figure out what was actually going on so you can get the rule right (assuming it’s applicable at all – offending Hammurabi probably isn’t a reason to do or not do any particular thing anymore).Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Guy says:


        I agree wholeheartedly. The “moral” of the story as I understood it in the manner in which it was presented is that we should abandon anything being done “because that is the way we’ve always done things”. To me, that is swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. We shouldn’t blindly accept the “wisdom” of our ancestors, but we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand either. As you said, we should periodically review it and ask ourselves, “Is the way we are doing things the way we ought to be doing things?”

        I don’t think we should be thinking, “Stupid monkeys. And stupid people who act like those monkeys.” Which was how I read it. But maybe that is my own bias peaking through.Report