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DO MONKEYS REALLY COPY WHAT THEY SEE?

By: Efraim Harari



Monkeys have a natural curiosity that leads them to try new things. Perhaps because of their curiosity, monkeys are considered to be among the most intelligent animals on earth.

Monkeys often imitate each other for survival purposes. Research has proven that groups of monkeys imitate each other when feeding, defending themselves, and traveling together. Scientists also believe that monkeys imitate as a sign of affection; it helps create a relationship between the imitator and the other monkeys in the group.

Besides for imitating each other, monkeys also imitate people. In one experiment, scientists at PLoS Biology tested twenty-one newborn macaques (a kind of monkey) by holding each in front of a researcher who made various facial expressions. At one day old, none of the newborn macaques showed any imitation. By day three, however, they started to copy the researcher’s expressions, including tongue protrusions, mouth opening, and lip smacking.

Monkeys like to be imitated by others, too. They look longer at people who imitate them, and are friendlier toward them. In fact, monkeys are more likely to trade things and play with people who copy them, and to accept food and water from them.

So, it seems like the expression “monkey see, monkey do” really does have truth to it!

Most Innovative

Capuchin monkeys are skilled tool users. They can smash nuts with rocks, insert branches into crevices to obtain food, and use large branches to club snakes.

Torah Connection

Monkeys are known to be great imitators. We often speak of imitations in the negative sense, but imitating is not always bad; sometimes it is a highly desirable trait! When we see a person with fine middot, we often wish we could be like that person. But if we try to imitate him, we can, in due course, attain some or all of the person’s good qualities! For this reason, Chazaltaught us to acquire good teachers and companions – so that we can copy their good qualities.

Above all, we are taught to “imitate” Hashem Himself. This is what the Torah means when it commands us to “walk in Hashem’s ways” (Devarim28:9). Just as Hashem is merciful and does acts of kindness, without any thought of reward, so, too, we must try to do the same.

However, imitation does have its down side, too. While monkeys are known to be great imitators, their mimicry is not accompanied by any thought or emotion – it is purely “mechanical.” For this reason, a person who does something without real thought or feeling is said to be acting “like an ape.” This is also the origin of the English expression “to ape.”

All actions of a human being should be thought out and meaningful, whether it’s an imitation or not. This is especially so regarding the mitzvot we do. Next time you do a mitzvah, do it with kavanah, with concentration and intention, and with joy! It will make a world of a difference, and the reward Hashem will give you for it will be that much greater, too.

Imitating with a Purpose

Monkeys imitate with a purpose, matching their behavior to others’ as a form of social learning. For example, many studies have shown that monkeys are able to discover new methods of obtaining food by copying the behavior of other members in their group.

One study observed four groups of vervet monkeys who were living in sanctuaries in South Africa where their behavior could be closely monitored. Each group was offered a fruit that was placed inside a container with a lid which could be popped off to reveal the reward inside. The researchers found that most commonly, the monkeys opened the container by holding it in one hand and using their mouth to pull the lid off.

However, in one group, an adult female monkey, named Finger, held the container in one hand and then used her other hand to pop the top off. As the researchers watched, Finger’s more unusual technique quickly spread among members of her group.

These results reinforce earlier findings that monkeys typically model the behavior of the adults in their group, which proves that their learning is mainly done by copying.