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Monkeys and Human Society

Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2019

I once watched a documentary about the Snow Monkeys of Japan. They are the rare monkeys that live in a cold climate. An image from that documentary has stayed with me, During the cold winters, the monkeys find relief as they luxuriate in the steamy water of a hot spring pool. But not all of them. Theirs is a very hierarchical society with strict rankings. And those rankings are determined by who was born to who. If a mother is low-status, then her off-spring will be low-status. And with rare exception, those positions follow a bloodline through the generations.

According to the documentary, while most of the troop enjoy the warm water, some low-ranking members are not always allowed to join. They are relegated to a rocky outcrop overlooking the pool. And that’s the image that keeps coming back to me. Snow covering the shivering backs of the excluded monkeys as they watch the privileged members enjoy the warm respite of the pool. Sound familiar? Human society has and does often function the same way. The people with a higher status keep the lower status people from the culture’s perks and opportunities.

Some would say that inequality is built into human society just as it is in monkey society. It is the natural order. I don’t buy that. Afterall, the Snow Monkeys–or any other monkey or ape group—have never conceptualized the idea of democracy or the belief that people are or should be born equal. And that is one important difference that separates us from the other primates. And one I am happy to celebrate.