Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Monkey Morality

I recently finished reading Alex Boese's book, Elephants On Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments.

Perhaps you did, too.

If so, you now know that giving LSD to a pachyderm is rarely a good experience for anyone involved.

You also know that car drivers stop more readily for a woman pushing a baby carriage than a woman pushing a shopping cart, that those engaging in sexual intercourse end up leaving behind a pubic hair on their partner only about 17% of the time, and that the longest a dog has ever lived after having a second dog's head transplanted next to its original was 29 days.

As fascinating and/or revolting as all that might be, however, the thing I found to be absolutely the most fascinating and/or revolting came in Boese's chapter about Stanley Milgram's famous "Obedience To Authority" experiments.

You remember those, right? No? Well, you can find Wikipedia's entry on them here.

My short summary goes like this: When people are asked to give an electric shock to another person as part of an alleged experiment to determine whether or not the infliction of pain helps people accurately memorize a list of randomly paired words, most people will shock that other person. In fact, they'll give that other person greater and greater shocks even as that person moans and begs for mercy. About two-thirds will even deliver an obviously dangerous jolt of 450 volts after the other person has started screaming or become ominously silent.

Did I mention that the other person indicated at the start that they have a heart condition? My bad. They did.

It was all a ruse, of course, designed to probe the human tendency to obey the increasingly outrageous requests of authority figures even as Very Bad Things start happening as a consequence.

Milgrim's conclusion: "I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment... that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we have seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town."

All of which I've known for many, many years. (I probably began to suspect as much from the time I encountered my first playground.)

What I didn't know until Boese told me was that other researchers have conducted similar experiments with monkeys.

Specifically, they locked rhesus monkeys in cages and required them to pull on a chain to obtain food. Pulling on that chain not only gave them food, however - it also delivered a shock to another monkey in a neighboring cage.

"After witnessing the agony of their neighbors. the majority of the monkeys refused to pull the chain again. They starved, some for as long as twelve days, instead of inflicting pain on another. The monkeys, in other words, did something most humans could not: They said no."

I look forward to the day when a political, religious, or business leader steps up and begins to promote a system of morality that's at least as good as that of the average rhesus monkey.

(Hell, at this point, I'd be happy to stop seeing news stories with titles like GOP Glock Raffle Succeeded So Well It Sold A Deer Rifle Also.)


  1. I clicked your last link and found this bit of racist specieism or specious racism: "Keith Olbermann dubbed the raffle "a crass, heartless, Neanderthal decision."
    For all we know the Neanders were too gentle to defend themselves against our ancestors and that's why they became extinct.

  2. I have thought of that experiment a lot, and it depresses me. Something must be figured out before children reach a stage where they're no longer malleable.... My only glimmer of hope regarding the GOP, here, is that if Dick the Shamely is any indication, a lot of those guys can't bag a mouse if their lives depended upon it... so just dress. Oy, too tired... must leave before my notes start to resemble those which would identify myself as a pachyderm taking LSD!