We Are the Risk-Taking Monkeys November 7, 2011

We Are the Risk-Taking Monkeys

Read this cartoon (click to enlarge) based off of an old experiment with monkeys and then ask yourself what the parallels are with religion:

David Stockin summarizes it well and asks the obvious questions:

The group knowledge, or paradigm, that climbing the ladder to reach the banana would result in group punishment, stayed with the population even though none of the monkeys had ever experienced the punishment.

It has been shown that the monkey’s belief that the group will be punished if they climb the ladder for the banana will last for generations, even without anyone ever actually being punished.

Is this one of the reasons why our society shy’s away from criticizing religious belief systems? Are we living in a society full of trained monkeys? Were our ancestors punished to the point that our whole society won’t climb the ladder of religion and question its purpose?

We’re the monkeys willing to take a risk and expose the superstition.

Be proud of that!

(Thanks to Pete for the link)

***Update***: Commenters point out the study may not be credible, so take it with a grain of salt. Even if it’s not true, I think there’s still a useful moral to this story.

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  • Too bad none of the monkeys thought to just tip the ladder over.

  • Anonymous

    Very true. I often think that for all the religionists’ protestations about how much they love god and he loves them, they are actually in a Stockholm syndrome relationship with their god. They want to appease him, and that means ganging up on anyone who goes against the herd, lest god punish all of them. This is explicitly given as the motivation for blasphemy laws when they were first introduced in various European countries – the blasphemer draws god’s wrath on the whole community, so he has to be punished to prevent this.

  • I think one parallel is that both religion and monkeys 

    have to be “cleaned up after”.

  • Reality Based Community

    Just to be clear, the experiment as described never happened. It is a great metaphor for religion though.


  • Tadmaster

    You may be onto something: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%2011&version=NIV

  • Philbert

    The cold shower is real and predictable, so the monkeys’ hostility to climbing the ladder is rational. I’m not sure this is the analogy you want to use for religion.

  • starskeptic

    I have doubts it ever happened at all…

  • Reality Based Community

    It certainly did not happen as described. Please add a clarification

  • Rich Wilson

    Something similar was done with crows.  People wearing a mask would catch a crow and keep it for a while.  Crow would learn that the mask was dangerous, and would caw loudly whenever they saw someone with it.  Offspring of that crow would learn from the parents that the mask was to be cawed at and avoided.  Even after leaving the nest, the 2nd generation crows would caw at the mask, even though they never witnessed the mask cause any harm.  This was in a documentary “A Murder of Crows” on CBC and  PBS 

  • Looks like there’s a skeptic site that has the same answer as wiki answers.


    (edit: corrected my source)

  • Anonymous

    I love that comic.

  • HA2

    I’m gonna say that this experiment really has not much to do with religion, even by analogy.

    According to the link, the actual experiment done was:

    1) Monkeys were trained to avoid A Thing
    2) They successfully passed that knowledge on to other monkeys who had not been trained.

    That’s certainly interesting and worthy of study, how such things are communicated. But it’s such a BROAD example that it doesn’t make for an interesting analogy. Yes, people teach each other things;  this will result in some people knowing things that they have not personally experienced. That’s normal – yes, it’s used in religion, but it’s also used in a professor lecturing to a classroom.

  • Except that a key component of the knowledge was not passed on: the reason why one should avoid the Thing. 

    In other words, the monkeys who came later do not know that they will get hosed with water, they only know they will get beat up by the other monkeys. That’s something entirely different.

    (I’m momentarily leaving aside that the experiment as presented does not appear to have actually taken place. Come to think of it, would it be ethical if it did?)

  • gsw

    “Were our ancestors punished to the point that our whole society won’t climb the ladder of religion and question its purpose?”You meant like: The rack; shin breakers; burning alive; hanging; stoning; drowning and other forms of torture? Forget our ancestors, it is enough that it happens, today, to other people, to make most frightened to say that faith is NOT knowledge, merely arrogance.

  • Tony

    Another monkey analogy goes like this:

    Every large organisation is like a tree full of monkeys.  Some monkeys want to get to the top.  Other monkeys are happy where they are.  The monkeys at the top look down and see nothing but smiling faces.  The monkeys at the bottom look up and see a bunch of assholes.

  • Anonymous

    Well yes, certainly the reason why not to avoid the thing was not passed on. However you really can’t blame the monkeys for this, since they lack the language needed to explain rules to their young.

    We aren’t all that different in many cases. Very young human children learn the same way. “No! You don’t put that in your mouth! Doo doo!” I’ve yet to see an adult tell an 18 month old infant “No, don’t put that in your mouth sweetie, it may have pathogenic bacteria that could cause an infection.” Of course our children will progress cognitively to a stage where they will be able to understand the reason why certain things are not done. It’s not surprising that monkeys would show the basic capacity to pass along knowledge while lacking the capacity to justify it, and it’s quite possible that conformity or tradition can stem from this sort of learning.

    Oh and as to whether such an experiment would be ethical. I’m not going to go into the ethics of it but I can assure you that this level of questionability would never stop an experiment from taking place. I’ve studied a bit about animal behavior, and some of the things they do to animals in experiments are so bad (or at least were, at the time) they make this look like a Disney vacation.

  • Anonymous

    I’m no monkey.  I’m an ape.

    If I were hungry I’d be willing to get soaked to get my banana (even though bananas are the atheist’s nightmare).  I would hope that humans would cooperate enough to get what they want with the minimum of discomfort to the others, perhaps by manufacturing umbrellas from banana skins.  Sadly I don’t believe that we humans are that cooperative.

    I like the analogy.  It shows that religion is a learned response.  I think a better experiment was done with pigeons who were rewarded with food for some random action.  They performed the actions that they thought led to a reward even though the reward was random.  With religion a lot of rituals are performed because people think it leads to a reward or a punishment is mitigated.  All that happens are normal events in their lives that they then attribute a divine guiding hand to.

  • A conservative monkey just entering the expeeriment would pull out his 9mm and shoot the f*ck out of the first monkey who attacked. He would then grab all the bananas for himself, call the system the free market and say it he was exercising his God given right to bananas. 

  • starskeptic

    at least 2 different versions with no clear direct sources; the source in the link you gave leads to a mention in SCIENCE of a publication of a meeting of the International Primatological Society which lists experiments mentioned at this meeting – nothing matches the description of this experiment… 

  • ara

    I have to agree that this is more a good example of Edmund Burke’s definition and defense of prejudice (generally, the idea that learned responses often have perfectly good reasons that are unknown to the current user)  as opposed to analogous to religion.  

    What the “experiment” precludes is the ability to unlearn, over time, that prejudicial response, and, to be honest, over a series of generations of no external ladder/punishment the behavior (beating monkeys that climbed the ladder) would likely be subject to extinction.

    I, too, by the way, am left with a sour taste in my mouth over the lack of a citation for this “experiment,” which appears to be entirely apocryphal.

  • Anonymous

    Not for the later monkeys that never experienced the shower. They are only acting that way because of hearsay or tradition.

    There are plenty of examples outside of religion where people kept up stupid traditions without knowing why. Just small things “that were always done this way”, but serve no purpose anymore

  • Anonymous

    Read the linked article. There are other examples of humans who kept up with senseless traditions and practices without knowing why. No one could explain it to them because they didn’t know

  • Philbert

    Not all traditions are wrong. The shower was real, the monkeys learned from their experiences and passed that knowledge on. That’s not religion, that’s civilization.

  • Anonymous

    Is anyone else bothered by the fact this post is using a possibly fictitious experiment as a analogy for religion? I mean, seriously; the story appears to be made up. Yes, I know, religion is made up as well, but that’s not an excuse for using a non-existent experiment to prove a point.

    Quite frankly, it give believers the opening to accuse atheists of  having “faith” in any science story, regardless of  whether it is true or not.

    At least the crow experiment Rich Wilson cited above actually happened.

  • Kathy Orlinsky

    If you’re going to use animal behavior as an analogy for religion, don’t resort to a nonexistent  experiment.  Why not use Skinner’s superstitious pigeons instead?  

    Pigeons can be taught to perform a variety of complex behaviors in return for a food reward.  In one set of experiments, pigeons were randomly rewarded, regardless of what they did, or whether they did anything at all.  Before long, each pigeon had begun to identify some behavior it had happened to perform (preening, standing on one leg, turning in a circle, whatever) just before a food pellet dropped into the slot as the reason for the reward.  After that, they continued to perform their superstitious behavior in the hopes of getting rewarded, and because the rewards were random, their ‘beliefs’ were reinforced enough of the time to keep them at it.


  • Interesting. Now, if we could just teach them to dump in
    the bushes.

  •  That’s pretty stupid Andrew.

  • I call bullshit.  I betcha the experiment as stated never happened.   Psychology today isn’t exactly a credible source.  Hell psychology in general isn’t a credible source. Diederik Stapel being the latest example.

  • ara

    Psych Today is crap, and Stapel certainly doesn’t seem to be doing the field of psychology any favors… but painting the whole field as uncredible seems a bit absurd.

  • Pseudonym

    As always, it has to be pointed out that most of the questioning ?why” has historically come from adherents of the religion themselves, not from people outside. The most famous example is probably the Reformation, but it still happens today in liberal religion.

  • Well thought out response to satire Brian — keep up the good work.

  • My dad taught psychology in college and he used to say, hyperbolically, that everything they really knew could be written on a 3×5 card.    Much of it is nonsense.     All the most famous psychologist Freud, Skinner, Jung were pretty much quacks, each in their own way.  

  • None required.

  • Now I’m starting to wonder if you even understand why I said it was stupid.   At first I was thinking the fact you made the excuse of calling it satire was because it dawned on you why it  was stupid.   However now I’m not so sure.

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