this monkey’s gone to heaven


Do you ever think what the world would be like without monkeys?
  Probably not.  Do we need monkeys?  We don’t eat them, or use them to plow our fields.  They don’t spend money so they don’t help the economy, and the outside possibility always exists that they will develop intelligence and turn all of us into zoo entertainment until Charlton Heston saves us.

But there is no real ‘reason’ for monkeys.  My son sure does like making monkey noises.  He likes seeing pictures of monkeys.  I’m not too proud to admit that the kid in me still gets a thrill seeing a big gorilla in the zoo.  Some of them are quite intelligent, and that’s amazing – I have seen documentary footage of a monkey using a blade of grass to stick in a hole to pull out ants.  That may not seem like much, but that’s using a tool and that’s a sign of rudimentary intelligence.

I don’t think the world would miss monkeys, exactly, if they all disappeared tomorrow.
  I’m assuming there wouldn’t be a big upset in the local monkey-area ecosystems or anything of that nature.  Much in the same way that I don’t miss the presence of passenger pigeons, I don’t think my grandchildren would someday worry too much about the lack of monkeys.  They could still watch King Kong the way I watch Jurassic Park – wow, check out the effects on that critter!

Children born today will never know a pre-9/11 world.  They will never know what it’s like not to have a massive, constant onslaught of information (unless they have Luddites for parents, and even then they can’t escape everything).  At least for Americans born in the 21st century, it will be hard to imagine a time when people overseas were excited (in a good way) to meet Americans.  It will be hard for my son to imagine a world without the Web, or where you had to be home to get a phone call.

I think it’s sad, in a way, but it’s a good example of how weak the human mind can be.  I have no trouble with the concept of a man on the moon, but 20 years before that happened a rocket that could travel from Germany to London was an astonishing technical achievement.  Four generations ago heavier-than-air flight was as kooky an idea as telepathy, but now nobody would blink an eye at an airplane.  100 years ago I doubt anyone thought there was any possibility whatsoever that humans could ever have an impact on the atmosphere of the earth.  Obviously even short-term trends can’t be predicted:  I don’t remember reading much in 2005 about the housing crash.  Analysts were saying Bear Stearns was a good investment 24 hours before it collapsed.  People thought Alan Greenspan was a genius.  I thought Lending Club was a decent investment.

I can’t imagine a world without monkeys, but with the way the world is going that day will come.  It’s a sad thought.  Each generation gets more and more information and exciting scientific discoveries and more and better foodstuffs (shrimp-flavored GMO corn!) but each generation loses something in exchange, too.  Maybe it doesn’t seem like much that we’ve piled garbage all over huge sections of the earth, or that another species of whale has disappeared.  

Probably in the larger sense it doesn’t matter – I believe humans will adapt and overcome climate change or whatever challenges lie in wait.  But the earth is a zero-sum environment.  Every time you pick up a cell phone, it represents pollution and toxic chemicals and radiation and life clutter and money spent.  And every time a monkey goes to heaven, or some other non-essential part of the world is shoved aside for “progress”, another few moments of life – what most of us seem to value when we look back on our happiest times – are made a little more gray.

(editor’s note:  I know there might be substantial upsets to the ecosystem if monkeys disappeared – I am making a hypothetical argument saying “let’s assume that there would not be an effect)

Creative Commons License photo credit: suneko, and yes, I am referencing this song

16 comments

  • I imagine there would be some ecosystem collapse somewhere – monkeys must be a keystone species in some part of the world. We might not notice though, and it wouldn’t make a difference in the larger scale of things. But it is a sad thought. Even though I hate monkeys.

  • The Pixies! Yay! You made my day – and your posts are great.

  • Why would you assume there wouldn’t be a collapse in the monkey’s ecosystem? Seems like the typical naive opinion that is present in American today about so many things…it is far away so it must not be that important. It doesn’t directly impact your day-to-day life in ways you can comprehend so you think there is “no reason” for monkeys. Maybe you should leave commenting about the importance of things you might not understand to those better trained to do so. While your sentiment towards the end is encouraging, your general argument that “it doesn’t matter” if we lose monkeys is very disappointing.

  • “I thought Lending Club was a decent investment.”

    I still think LC is a decent investment. They will be back and better than ever.

  • To the contrary, J, I think Brip Blap is entirely sympathetic to the loss of species. While it is true that species are constantly becoming extinct (well over a million and counting) and yet the world goes on, I think BB was trying to point out how very sad it is that we regard the future so little that we are doing this. Don’t get mad at BB–he is hardly the enemy!

  • As others have spoken in defense of ecosystems, science, complexity, and monkeys, I’d like to speak in defense of creative writing and the concept of a freaking metaphor. Seriously people.

    Thought provoking post, BB.

  • Wasn’t mad and I am not some crazed environmentalist or animal rights person. Hey they just shot a cougar about a mile from my house in Chicago and I think it was the right thing to do!

    I do get that the overall sentiment of the post was sympathetic, I just think that is was poorly executed and ended up sounding like he was saying that the loss of a single species is only important in a very superficial, touchy-feely way. It diminishes the importance of the ecological impact that this type of potential loss might have on an ecosystem. When you throw out statements like “[b]ut there is no real ‘reason’ for monkeys” and “non-essential part of the world” you have to expect that somebody might take issue with it! I was just taking issue with portions of the post because it just perpetuates the ignorance about these issues and an American-centric worldview.

  • @J: As Ruth said, I think you misunderstood the point I am trying to make. It’s not that I don’t think it would be bad, and it’s not that I think it would have an impact on the ecosystem – I understand that there’s a poorly understood and staggeringly complex interrelationship between all living things, and we have no idea what would happen if monkeys disappear.

    I just meant, for the sake of argument, that the loss might SEEM minor – species disappear constantly – but it in fact would have a terrible effect on the world in general. Even small losses are losses that will never be recovered. I hope that clears up your perception of where I was going with this piece – if it didn’t read the way I meant it to, hopefully this response clears it up a bit.

  • I disagree with the statement that it would create a minor effect on the ecosystems. Monkeys are a huge part of the eco system, their loss would be enormous. If we lost something like the galapagos tortoise where it’s numbers are already short and it;’s isolated in just one area, then maybe it wouldn’t have that much of an effect on the world. Actually it wouldn’t have any effect outside of the Galapagos.
    Every loss, is a loss. Whether it be big or small, when an species or genus is wiped off this planet, thats that. No turning back. Thats the sad reality of the world.

  • Not to start an argument or anything, but I will say again that species disappear by the hundreds of thousands. All the dinosaurs disappeared, for goodness sake! It was catastrophic, but other species poured in to fill the void. Someday, no doubt, humans will vanish, but that’s the way life goes. Something else will come along, and maybe it will all start over again and, millions of years later, sentient beings will re-emerge. Let’s hope that they manage things better than we do!

  • This post makes me think of an incredible book that did for my “environmental” thinking the same thing that “Your Money or Your Life” did for my financial thinking. It’s called “Ishmael” and if you or anyone reading this comment hasn’t read it, please do so as soon as you can! It seems bizarre at first (just like YMOYL) but it’s worth it, it really changed my way of thinking about the world.

  • This monkey picture totally makes up for your nasty egg picture.

    I think monkeys will be kept alive if only for research. I know it’s a disturbing picture, but there is a TON of research money being spent on monkey research…

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  • This is a very good post and I agree with some of it, but I don’t share your sense of pessimism. Generally speaking the world is getting to be a better place, not a worse one. While many people are nostalgic for the past, I for one think that the world today is better than it was in the middle ages (or in the 70’s for that matter).

    Yes, there are definitely drawbacks to technological progress, but for the most part once those are recognized the really bad ones are reversed or greatly mitigated: the whales are not extint; the hole in the ozone is no longer growing and appears to be shrinking; the air today is cleaner than it was just 20 years ago. Yes – there are some major challenges to overcome, and more are created all the time. Such is life.

  • Excellent post!
    What makes me angry is that, in theory, we don’t need to sacrifice to continue living our comfy lives. It’s not like “internet or chimpanzees!” or “highway system or blue whales!” not even “your SUV or coral reefs!” We can most probably enjoy both but somehow the world is set up in such a way that we are doing unnecessary damage.

  • I have friends that use rhesus macaques for research. A ton of research money is spent on monkeys because each monkey costs a ton to maintain. The researchers and animal techs spend a lot of time interacting with the monkeys for enrichment and to manage the colony social dynamics (because monkeys will do things like bite a subordinate’s finger off). The monkeys only work a certain number of hours per day a certain number of days a week, and they get several weeks of vacation a year. (The graduate students, on the other hand, are at the mercy of their advisors for vacation time and work 60+ hour weeks, including weekends.) In one lab, each monkey gets retired to a monkey sanctuary at age 9 or so, too, at the lab’s expense. It’s not an ideal life, but it compares favorably with macaque lifestyles in the wild, where they do not have access to modern medicine and walls between them and non-friendly monkeys.