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Misfit monkeys and the mysteries of consciousness

Misfit monkeys and the mysteries of consciousness

Misfit monkeys and the mysteries of consciousness
July 12
12:34 2016


When they grow bored with the 17th-century monuments where many of them live, or when they’re hoping to steal food, troops of rhesus macaques drop by our neighbourhood in Delhi.

Over time, you grow to know them as well as you know your human neighbours: the old, scarred bulls; the matriarchs bossing the new mothers; the young males baring their teeth at anyone who gets too close; the stragglers and misfits. One morning, I find the cherry tomatoes and rocket plants in our tiny roof garden have been destroyed. Perhaps macaques are anti-hipster.

Halfway down the stairs, I stop short. One of the misfits, a middle-aged bull who usually trails moodily after the troop, is plucking leaves off the curry-leaf tree. I sidle past him warily, since macaques can be aggressive. But once I’m safe behind the veranda grill, I tell him that I didn’t mind about the cherry tomatoes, but I do wish he wouldn’t tear apart the curry-leaf plants.

He looks up. I could swear he’s listening. His eyes are bright and alert, though his fur is unkempt, knotted, dusty. You could be handsome with a bit of grooming, I suggest. He shambles towards the grill and I step back.

Then he lays a sprig of curry leaf down in front of the door and peers at me. I lower my gaze so as not to trigger his threat responses, and say, “Thanks, that’s nice.” Days later, he returns with a gift — three of the neighbour’s zinnias, carefully torn into separate petals, laid outside the grill. I thank him again. He smacks his bottom, whooping, and bounds off to the roof.

I have no idea why he didn’t bare his teeth or charge at me, or why this appears to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But I know that some essential, non-verbal signal passed between us. It is frustrating not to know precisely what it was.

This is not anthropomorphism. I’m less interested in the moments when the misfit may have behaved like a human animal, than in the way he behaved as a macaque possibly making friends with another primate.

I have very few blueprints for these non-verbal exchanges between one kind of animal and another. It’s easy to tell when the mynahs and babblers in the laburnum tree outside are fighting over territory, less easy to understand why they switch from ferocious squabbles to apparently perfect amity. Watching a line of ants do an almost apian waggle-dance as they traverse a road at night, it seems to me they’re keeping their antennas up cautiously for signs of passing cars, but I can’t say so with certainty.

The ethologist Frans de Waal argues that humans need to shift perspective, to recognise that the intelligence of fellow species should not be measured in merely human terms. “Are we open-minded enough to assume that other species have a mental life? Can we tease apart the roles of attention, motivation and cognition?” he asks in Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Instead of animal cognition, which places an artificial barrier between humans and other species, he suggests “evolutionary cognition”, which allows us to see the possibilities of many other kinds of sophisticated non-human intelligence.

De Waal, and other scientists, are at the leading edge of one of the biggest modern-day shifts in human thought. In July 2012, a prominent group of scientists released the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness”, a formal acknowledgment that many non-human animals, including mammals, birds and cephalopods, also possess “the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”.

When you acknowledge that consciousness — and friendship, or parenthood, territorial grabs, or falling in love — are not solely human activities, the implications are enormous for the way humans plan their cities, run their industries and their governments. Especially if we do get closer to understanding communication in other species.

This goes beyond the idea that you should treat other species with moral consideration — given that we’re still trying to get humans to treat other humans well, this could take time to achieve. De Waal says it best: “Our challenge is to think more like them . . . True empathy is not self-focused, but other-oriented.”

When you stop “making humanity the measure of all things”, perhaps it finally becomes possible to imagine what a perfect world might be for a dolphin, a paper wasp, or even a flower-stealing macaque. Whether it includes humans or not.

Nilanjana Roy is the author of ‘The Wildings’ and ‘The Hundred Names of Darkness’ and lives in Delhi

@nilanjanaroy

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