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Machiavellian Monkeys, James Shreeve, Discover, June 1991 Essay

“The sneaky skills of our primate cousins suggest that we may owe our great intelligence to an inherited need to deceive.” Machiavellian Monkeys, James Shreeve, Discover, June 1991.

Fraud. Deception. Infidelity. Theft. When these words are spoken, or read, the first thought is of human traits. Not once would someone think of animals as being capable of such actions, but people forget that humans are animals, and that the human animal evolved from a creature that had common ancestry with the great apes. Is it surprising then that these seemingly humanistic traits are found in primates? James Shreeve discusses the findings of hundreds of primatologists, which support the notion of Machiavellian intelligence in primates. He studied Machiavellian Intelligence in baboons, chimps, lemurs and lorises, and concluded that social primates exhibit this intelligence and those that live in small groups or in solitude do not.

First, let’s examine the term Machiavellian. The dictionary definition is: characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty. By suggesting Machiavellian intelligence, Shreeve implies that these types of behaviour are not simply conditioned responses to stimuli, but conscious thought. This might not be blatantly obvious as important to physical anthropology, but it does suggest a number of important ideas as to the development of man.

Lesser primates, such as lemurs and lorises, do not exhibit any type of deceptive traits, but when more advanced primates are examined, it can be seen that as the size of the brain increases, there are increasingly more complicated tactics used to deceive others of their own species. It is interesting to note that humans have brains roughly three times larger than would be expected, and also exhibit the most complex Machiavellian behaviours.

An important observation that Shreeve points out is that primates such as the orang-utan, who lead solitary lives and have no need for social skills, do not exhibit any signs of Machiavellian traits. This observation, together with the observation of brain size and primate order, suggests that Machiavellian behaviour may not be a result of intelligence, but was, actually, an important factor in the development of it. For example, a creature that is able to consciously deceive others in order to get food or breed has a distinct advantage over those who do not.

When considered with the need for large social groups, this ability of deception and trickery becomes even more important which can help explain why humans have evolved with their huge brains. Humans could not have become as successful as they have without incredible social skills, including those skills considered Machiavellian. Shreeve notes that this is also consistent with chimpanzees, who have a great advantage with these abilities. The advantage is a result of their social structure (large groups that constantly vary) meaning that there would be no advantage if chimpanzees lived solitary lives.

If there is any doubt that Machiavellian intelligence gives an individual a greater chance of surviving and reproducing, the case of concealment, as observed with stump-tailed macaques and hamadryas baboons leaves no doubt. By concealing their relationship with, arousal by, or physical nearness to the potential mate from the dominant male(s), an individual finds breeding is possible; without this intelligence, it would be far less likely, if not impossible.

Although Machiavellian behaviour is somewhat controversial in terms of it being human nature, it does seem to indicate intelligence not so different than that found in the great apes. Perhaps this is why people tend to resist the idea that humans are fundamentally Machiavellian in nature; it is behaviour that seems too animalistic. It does seem, though, that the exact opposite could be true: Machiavellian behaviour is humanistic behaviour evident in the animals we call primates. No matter how we look at it, the fact remains that the observation of this type of behaviour in primates is significant to physical anthropology.


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