Monkeys Like Me

A few days ago, I saw a troop of monkeys meandering through the resort where I was staying in Langkawi. The resort was rather isolated and the food wasn’t super, but there were monkeys all over the grounds, and they weren’t afraid of us humans. Once in a while, I spotted a loner, but for the most part, they moved around together in troops. There was one troop with a mama whose baby hung on her chest. It was bright yellow and looked like a toy (pictured right).

Like monkeys, humans are highly social animals. The difference is in our troops: tribes, cultures, clubs, countries, neighborhoods, religions, professions, etc. Our troops are sophisticated and our civilization is much more complex than Mother Nature. Some people want to be left alone, but most feel better together with people who share something in common. This got me wondering if loners have an anti-herd gene or if they’ve learned something about herding that turns them off.

A funny thought, but here I am eating imported apples in a country that’s full of tropical fruits like mangos, papayas, passion fruit, and dragon fruit. Why is this resort serving apples on the buffet? I wonder. Why is there not one tropical fruit available for breakfast? It’s Tourism 101, but we Michiganders don’t fly 10,000 miles to Malaysia for apples. I want tropical fruit like the monkeys. I want monkey food! It’s so simple; it’s ridiculous! Why can’t I have local fruits?

I checked the research, and there’s no scientific consensus on whether anti-herding is natural or cultural. But as George S. Patton said so eloquently, “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” While people are born with a capacity for certain kinds of intelligence, much of it is learned through personal experience. I imagine that former victims become more adept at spotting predators than they were before. And traveling around the world makes people more worldly. If you’re not growing your intelligence through life, what are you doing?

There are two kinds of monkeys here in Langkawi. The one I was talking about earlier is the Dusky Leaf Monkey, or Spectacled Langur. I saw a lot of these all over the resort. This species lives in coastal and riverine forests, from southern Burma and Thailand to Peninsular Malaysia. The taxi driver said they are nice monkeys. People at the resort went right up next to them and they weren’t afraid. As you can see in the photos, they’re adorable.

The other kind of monkey is the Long-Tailed Macaque. Unlike the Dusky Leaf, this species is noisy and aggressive. I saw them only by car on the road into the resort (no photo), and was warned to stay away. They travel in large troops up to thirty, whereas the Dusky Leaf travel in troops of ten or fewer. Like people, monkeys come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments, and mentalities. And it’s important to keep windows and doors locked when you’re not home!

What makes us different from monkeys? Our ability to speak, read, and write languages. We are not born with language, but we are born with a strong capacity to learn language and develop analytical thinking skills in the process. It is not our reptilian “survival” brain or our mammalian “social” brain that distinguishes us as human beings—it is our “relational” brain that drives perception, emotion, cognition, and language in an interdependent way.

Like everything, language has helped and hurt our species. While monkeys certainly fight, they don’t make weapons and war. They don’t create money or wealth divides. They don’t exploit the earth and enslave each other. They don’t manipulate one another or inflict harm on other monkeys just because they think and look different. Human beings have built civilizations on big words and magical ideas. They will likely destroy themselves in the same way.

The prefix “anti” is probably one of the most dangerous four letters in the English language. Anti-vax, anti-biotic, anti-establishment, anti-Christ, etc. Don’t drink anti-freeze! Since herding is ubiquitous in all social life forms, the word “anti” is counterproductive to the evolution of our species. Human beings as anti-herders is an oxymoron. We don’t leave our civilization behind and go off into the wilderness for the pleasure of survival. There’s no joy in this. If we don’t agree with our herd, we join another.

While I’ve concluded that I am not an anti-herder—and neither are you—I am a loner. Being a loner is not lonely. Nor is it isolating. I am always around people in one form or another. Like the monkey who wanders away from her troop for a while to enjoy a piece of dragon fruit and watch human beings do all kinds of weird activities, I like to travel and watch people in the process. This is what I’ve always done, and this is what I will probably continue to do in one way or another.

While I have some things in common with monkeys—hanging from bars and loving tropical fruit—there’s at least one big difference. They can’t book a trip like I did to Malaysia or sit still on a plane for seventeen hours. Traveling, painting, drawing, and orchestrating words into art, is one of the most enlightening and uniquely “human” things I do. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” —Mark Twain.

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