Thursday, April 30, 2015

Working for Cucumbers

But if we gave one of [the Capuchins] grapes while keeping the other on cucumber, things took an unexpected turn. [...] Upon noticing their partner's salary raise, monkeys who had been perfectly willing to work for cucumber suddenly went on strike. Not only did they perform reluctantly but they got agitated, hurling the pebbles and sometimes even the cucumber slices out of the test chamber. [...]
[...] The lucky grape recipients sometimes even supplemented their meal with their neighbor's abandoned cucumber slices. They were in a cheerful mood, as opposed to their poor partners who by the end of the test would sit sulking in the corner.
When Sarah [Brosnan] and I published this study under the title "Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay" it struck a chord, perhaps because many people see themselves as cuke-eaters in a world with lots of grapes.
Frans de Waal "Our Inner Ape," p.216
Of course, people are not monkeys.

But there is an parallel to be drawn. When you watch  Dr. de Waal's TED talk (jump ahead to about 12:30 to cut straight to the Capuuchin experiment), you notice that when the monkey who was given cucumber essentially throws a tantrum, nothing changes. Pelting the researcher with cucumber slices does not change her behavior. Nor does the other monkey give up on taking the grapes that it is offered. All that happens is that the Capuchin loses the food that was theirs for the taking.

This comes to mind whenever a visible act of injustice results in unrest and uprising in a Black community. What was gained by the violence and looting? What has changed? American society as a whole is no less unequal. And White America, as a whole, doesn't demand that we be treated just as they are. We put the gun to our own heads and threaten to shoot, but instead of winning concessions, we simply wind up blowing our brains out.

Yes, it's unfair that when others are routinely handed grapes, we have to subsist on a diet of cucumbers. It sucks to watch other people doing well for themselves when we feel as though we're barely getting by. But if the cucumbers are all that we are going to get, we should start seeing them as a resource and making use of them, rather than casting them aside in a fit of pique. Of course, this doesn't mean that we stop working to find a way to find a seat on the Grape Train. But the trashing of our communities (or taking our anger out on the others that live among us) isn't going to get us there.

(By the way, Chimpanzees have enough of a sense of empathy that they will refuse grapes until a partner is also offered them. But Chimpanzees also have a sense of reciprocity, something that, at time, I think that humans lack.)

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