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A primate brain, say a chimp’s or a bonobo’s grey matter, sees the world in monkey terms. That is to say, it first and foremost is part of a band of other monkeys, it tries to figure out who’s boss and who’s to be exploited, who is enemy, who controls the food, etc. Mostly it is all about «who»s. Inside the head, it is a lot of monkeys. Primates are social animals and the pecking order is way more important than anything else. The same brain also helps with spacial navigation, cause-and-effect modelling, literature criticism and so on, but those are side-effects.

But the thing is: Those side effects turn out quite impressive. So: How, exactly?

Science, Art, Pornography, Philosophy, J-Pop, Mathematics, Culinary, Religions, Traffic Jam, Po-Mo, Bureaucracy, 4chan — all of those (and many others) are one way or another a product of human brain activity. Now if all brain activity is monkey business, if all the brain does is deal with the politics of ape packs, then how exactly do we understand all of those things?

Science is a kind of monkey business.

So is Art. And J-Pop.

The idea is that the brain models things in the same way that it models people.

Not only we use the same “neuronal machinery” to treat people and things, we ascribe to things a lot of properties that only people have and could conceivably have. Thus for example we think our cars and computers have moods, we give names to animals, we talk to plants. {A technical name for this would be Anthropomorphism}.

For example, you find an apple, never seen one before, you throw it at the oranges part of the brain. Brains being brains, they adapt by passing different stuff through similar channels.

Some call it «metaphor». Not only it is surprising that it works at all, it is actually surprising that it works really well. It looks like we can have a better understanding of the world than anything else through this monkey business. Metaphor is more powerful than data. Laplace’s daemon is not as good as metaphor — it knows how things are but it can never interpret them.

Part of it is that monkeys can mimic. They copy one another like clowns. Actually we do this automatically all the time as a means to convey agreement. It is totally basal in our organisms. So if we are gonna model monkeys, we gotta have a category for «behaves as». The way a monkey acts is an independent variable. From that (edenically speaking, of course) we get orthogonality in our monkey-brains.

But also, monkeys do make-believe. They play, they play-act, they fictionalise. They create fictions, worlds that are fake and do not exist. And they care about those worlds, sometimes more than about the world that does exist. Thus our model needs to have a «behaves as if». And from that we get speculative capability in our monkey-brains.

So if we see a tree, we do instead see a monkey that stands and keeps silent and sprouts apples. Weird, but a monkey can conceivably do such stuff. If we tried to model a tree with a zebra it wouldn’t really work, or a zebra with a tree for that matter.

The mythos of science is based about a fabled Reductionism, which should mean that we take everything to be atoms and that we model everything through atoms. An atom is something boring and (¡by definition!) devoid of anything remarkable or worthwhile or interesting. That should be as simple as possible and, for that matter, as different from a monkey as possible. Instead, we take everything as a monkeys.

Mathematics is the prime example of that. A number has very few characteristics, very few properties, but it does have the bare minimum characteristics to be a monkey. A number has opinions and preferences. 2 prefers to become 4 when squared. And this bare minimum of monkeyness is terribly useful, in that it embodies the make-believe capability of monkeys. That is why “The unreasonable effectiveness of Maths”.

The problem is that we don’t know for a fact that the universe is exclusively composed of semi-monkey stuff.

Actually, it sounds pretty fake. This sounds like a fantasy concocted by a bad bad monkey.

Even criticising it we still fall into the same monkey business. Which is certainly OK since we are monkeys and we have to go about our business. But one way or the other we are forcing this «monkey way of seeing» down the universe’s throat, and our very good luck is that the universe couldn’t care less. Which means that the monkey brain has to be judged (as we would pass judgement on a pack mate that was doing something unexpected) by the effects of its work.

As i said, it does work. Sometimes.

It probably does not work sometimes too, but we are utterly unable to see it for our only tool to judge is the very one in need of judgement here.

But monkeys do recognise their own reflection. And the brain is somewhat meta. In fact, even worms brains is meta, since the very first brain evolves from a neurone cord that somehow turns out to loop over itself. So the neurones that were supposed to tell the tail’s cells about what was happening over at the head (and the other way round) start telling other neurones about the neurones. Which should be pretty useless except it allows the meta thing. Which turns out to also be the capability to lie, almost exactly.

In the same way, even though we are used to think of our brains as that which makes us civilised, civil, cultured, it would probably make more sense to recognise the brain as what allows us to be deceitful, cruel, dishonest, cunning, stubborn and devious. That is also what makes us strategical animals, but the strategy comes from tactics and they are nasty. Just like monkeys. We are nasty monkeys and all our non-nastiness is surprisingly a side-effect of the nasty.

So we must become better monkeys. And it certainly means getting more of the nasty together with more of the non-nasty.

[translation of Entendimento Bonobo]



  1. Hi, that’s me again : ) I have no idea whether you like it or dislike it when some strangers comment on your posts. But if you anything like me, you might like it.

    I wanted to say that I really like the way you verbalise your thoughts and the thoughts themselves. At least when you verbalise them in English :D

    I often think about this too. About how many beautiful side products can emerge from heads full of other monkeys only. Sometimes it seems there is really no place for anything else and oh, how much I wish to stop thinking about other monkeys for just a second. But then somehow I manage to create something only indirectly connected to monkeys and I’m so happy about this change. But only for a moment, because next moment I wish to share it with other moneys.

    I hold very dear these corners of the internals of my mind, where some abstract ideas are, like physics and computer science. I adore to play in these corners alone. But then I realize that their dearness can be completely destroyed for me if there were not a single monkey for whom I can use these things or share them with.

    • Is it you again? Should i know you? I’m sorry no one ever comments in this blog, so usually i do not check it. I really like your reply though. I guess the last post i wrote could be a kind of a reply… if only it was not in Portuguese. I’ll try to find some time to translate it tomorrow. Even though i don’t know if you’ll ever see this reply or the post, but anyway, blogs, now that the hype is over, are a bit like this, like throwing message-bottles in the sea.

        • Daria
        • Posted 2016, 133/365, Friday at ~2
        • Permalink

        Surely I see your reply, because wordpress automatically subscribes you to the posts you commented once : )

        Again – because I commented on the previous to that post too, but you didn’t reply anything and I was hesitant to write again because I didn’t want to disturb you.

        Actually I started learning Portuguese a couple of years ago, because I find it incredibly expressive and beautiful, but then I didn’t have enough motivation to continue learning it. I like learning languages but I lack motivation when I don’t live in a country where it is spoken.

      • But then I realize that their dearness can be completely destroyed for me if there were not a single monkey for whom I can use these things or share them with.

        Ok, so i translated my last post. It basically says this in other words. So it does not tell you much, but, you know, maybe you’ll like it.

        About words and monkeys, i wrote somewhere else something like: Words are something you say to get other people in your tribe to like you, and in that they are much more like a scratch in the back than they are like equations.

        Anyways, i do from time to time make a print from these blog posts, i call it the “Temporary Referential Zine”, if you have a PO Box or something i could send snail-mail to, and you want it, give me your details in my email marciorps AT gmail.

  2. Oh, this thing about scratching someone’s back! When I started my blog that was the fist thing I realized.

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