Dance Monkey Dance

I assume that you are all familiar with Ernest Cline’s famous spoken word piece “Dance Monkey Dance.” If you are not, just click on this link and you will be. :) In this piece Cline asserts that we are nothing more than monkeys in denial who figured out language and other neat stuff. Before you dismiss or embrace this notion without a second thought (see, confirmation bias), how about a critical review of that assertion?

There are several arguments for why we are not just monkeys. We have the ability to transform our environment; we have an unprecedented level of cognition that has forced us to ask questions like “Why?” and “How?”; we have become the most dominant species on this planet and have established a unique signature on our world (global warming, anyone?); we are capable of generating and propagating information across space and time beyond the confines of an individual, group, or even temporal identity. The list is practically endless. But perhaps the most charming among them is our unique flaws.

Much like any other species, we are indeed flawed in many respects. Yet our intellect, while compensation for many of our flaws, introduces many more. Specifically, consider our cognitive biases which have propelled us into a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral both as individuals and as a species. Everything from the present economic crisis to the quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan can be tied back to these biases. This is often viewed as the burden of intellect, of intelligence. We are too smart for our own good. A plausible argument is that these flaws are symptomatic of the complexity of our environment. Thanks to our intelligence, we have succeeding in creating an environment (being it the stock market, or security backed mortgages, or the concept of nation states, or frameworks for morality and the accompanying dilemmas, or many more) so complex, that we fail to understand it, we fail to comprehend its complexity, and inevitably stretches the limits of cerebral tractability.

Or does it?

Are our cognitive biases really an artefact of the complexity of our environment? This recent TED talk reveals that it might actually not be so! Experiments with monkeys have revealed that monkeys make surprisingly the same rational and (more importantly) irrational decisions as humans when it comes to certain cognitive tasks that involve economic transactions. So may be we really are just monkeys that figured out how to get down from trees, grow an opposable thumb, and speak. A humbling notion indeed!

Laurie Santos: How monkeys mirror human irrationality

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