The Macaque Mating Market and Human Altruism
Primates, of course, are eerily similar to humans. Their hands, their smiles, their eyes … their custom of selling sex? Yes indeed, say researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, who have for the first time documented cases of monkeys engaging in a primitive form of prostitution. According to the study, “Payment for Sex in a Macaque Mating Market,” published in the December issue of Animal Behavior:
“[M]ales in a group of about 50 long-tailed macaques in Kalimantan Tengah, Indonesia, traded grooming services for sex with females; researchers, who studied the monkeys for some 20 months, found that males offered their payment up-front, as a kind of pre-sex ritual. It worked. After the females were groomed by male partners, female sexual activity more than doubled, from an average of 1.5 times an hour to 3.5 times. The study also showed that the number of minutes that males spent grooming hinged on the number of females available at the time: The better a male’s odds of getting lucky, the less nit-picking time the females received.”
The study’s author, Michael Gumert, cautions against too cynical a view of this so-called “biological market theory.” But the arrangement — I’ll scratch your back if you’ll… — is all too familiar. And, as the monkeys show, it’s really rooted in selfishness. Even if they derive pleasure from scratching another macaques’ back, they are doing it for their own gain.
Unlike the macaques — who, as far as we know, feel no guilt about trading grooming for sex — we humans like to believe that we can, or at least should, strive to act selflessly. But in light of this and other studies, is true altruism an impossible dream — a fairy tale perpetuated to encourage social cohesion? Are humans just a bunch of hairless monkey-pimps following the Gordon Gekko mantra that “greed is good?” Or is there more to our society than the cold rules of a biological marketplace?