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3 december 2013
Desmond Morris's brief, elegant book Monkey for Reaktion's Animal series treats an odd intermediate group of creatures. Apes, after all, are just people, if a little hairier and less talkative. Every other mammal is distinctly "other." But monkeys seem to bear a mocking relationship to the "greater" apes, including us.
A common cultural employment of monkeys, Morris notes, is to burlesque human beings. In early-modern tableaux and circuses, down to the present day in Asia, people have gotten entertainment out of watching monkeys do human things: eat with utensils, walk tightropes, play guitar. The same performances have been done with apes, naturally: the Chimpanzee's Tea Party at London Zoo was a standard mid-20th-century attraction. But monkeys have been known longer in the West, so there's a longer-established tradition of using them for parodic purposes. And their smaller scale makes them somehow funnier and less pathetic. Though it doesn't make the humans forcing them to act like monkeys any less pathetic, in a different sense.
Monkeys are smaller than chimps and people, but not necessarily less smart. Morris invokes amazing film clips of capuchins cracking palm nuts to show that at least one genus of monkey uses tools on a conceptual par with chimps or humans. (The capuchins just use rocks that they've found, mind you; but let them loose in a hardware store, and I bet they'll be rating the power tools before the end of the Christmas season.)
Capuchins can be trained as service animals, but Morris doesn't advise getting one as a pet. Unless exhaustively conditioned, they are messy, willful creatures, and their bite is no joke. Pet monkeys have been all the rage in the West since Egyptian times. Royalty of the early modern period distinguished themselves by adopting rare monkeys as companions. You'd better stick to kittens; they are just as cute and become less likely to trash your house and maim you as they age.
Monkeys have not figured much in "high" or academic artistic traditions. Some modern artists (Picasso, Kahlo, Bacon) have worked them into the framework of their larger concerns. Inevitably, George Stubbs painted a memorable monkey. But respect for the monkey, historically, has been confined to eastern religions and what Morris calls "tribal" cultures: Hanuman in India, the Monkey King in China, scary Baule monkeys from West Africa, stylized Kuna monkeys from Panama.
Monkeys are far more common than apes, and as a group, are not in danger of disappearing. They are opportunists who skillfully avoid predators, even their worst predator (man). But many monkey species are on the brink of extinction, largely from habitat destruction. Weirdly enough, new monkey species are being discovered all the time as development presses further into the planet's last wilderness. Most are being described just in time to be labeled critically endangered, and are likely to disappear not long after we meet them for the first time.
Morris, Desmond. Monkey. London: Reaktion, 2013.