What Are Those Well-Dressed Apes Doing?

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

The imperial women of wealthy
cities set a high standard of personal decor. They turn the monthly flimflam
of the fashion magazines into real people you can see in the streets, eateries,
shops and the seemingly ceaseless cavalcade of charity balls. The various schemes
of costume, makeup and creating a "look" that becomes the desirable
mode of the moment provide the Living Theater of the sexual drama. Large cities
like New York and Washington are famously peopled with an excess of exploratory
women over available men. However drastic the imbalance, among its results are
loneliness and sharpened competition in the sexual marketplace.

The nail salon is a perfect
location for dealing with both issues at relatively modest cost. The omnipresent
mirrors and the attention of the attendants provide to the client a sense of
unostentatious luxury and at least temporarily elevated personal importance.
It’s the equivalent of "getting your hair done" without provoking
any uncertainty about which style and cut to aim for. It is all quite straightforward.

And yet there’s more
to it, rather a lot more. Among all the primates, including us, grooming interactions
are highly satisfying and appear to generate positive impacts on mental and
physical health. If you survey a group of nearly all the varieties of primates–a
few are almost always solitary–you will see the individual animals in a
clump, and very often they are in direct physical contact, perhaps carefully
inspecting each other’s skin, perhaps removing insects, perhaps mining
for flecks of salt from dried sweat, which they then consume.

It’s obvious that these
interactions are gratifying, and animals excluded from them are usually the
lowest-ranking members of the group. The higher the status, the more the grooming
is the general rule. Subdominants appear willing to groom the dominant animals,
and the bonds of social structure may be as well reflected by picking fleas
as more aggressive interactions.

And the animals are expert
groomers. They appear to know what works to create social affinity. It can be
a quite striking skill. Once I visited a friend who was doing research on chimps
at the London Zoo and she gave me to hold a juvenile, which was in itself a
generous emotional experience. But then the creature did something I thought
remarkable. About three months earlier I had endured a fairly clear cut on the
top of my hand, near the thumb. It had healed well and, I thought, completely.
But not to the chimp, who instantly perceived the nearly invisible memoir of
the wound and began with sweet enthusiasm to pick away any invisible insects
and then licked the area intently. And it was only a first date. You had to
be there. But you also had to melt.

Grooming is clearly not
solely part of the entertainment industry. Some fascinating research on capuchin
monkeys of Central and South America by a Columbia University graduate student
in anthropology, Ximena Valderrama, and several coauthors reveals that the animals
have learned that if they smear their bodies with a kind of 4-inch millipede,
the insects’ chemicals with which they defend themselves also provide stronger
insect repellency than any known human product. Since they live in an area afflicted
with bountiful mosquitoes, their mastery of primate pharmacology provides remarkable
benefit to their quality of life. These mosquitoes are not only as annoying
as only mosquitoes can so vilely be, but also they carry the eggs of a miserable
fly that lodges beneath the skin until they emerge as maggots, bringing infection
and pain. To prevent all this, the capuchins rub the millipede over their entire
bodies. They pass the desirable millipedes from one to the other, like a 1960s
spliff. If an individual animal is unable to secure an insect of his own, he
will rub his body against an already-repellent chum. While the animals are normally
hierarchical about resources and grooming, in this matter they seem to be completely
egalitarian. Everyone gets the medicine in a kind of universal monkey healthcare.

For some reason, the nail
salons reminded me of a dazzling piece of research on the behavior of doves
by Mei-fang Cheng of the Institute for the Study of Animal Behavior at the Rutgers
University campus at Newark. With jaw-dropping virtuosity, Dr. Cheng was able
to develop astonishingly punctilious techniques for studying the interaction
between events in the brain, the endocrine system and the behavior of this tiny
bird. She found an unexpected feature of the creature’s sexual repertoire.
Among songbirds and the dove too usually it’s the male who bursts into
song to advertise his desirability to females and to allow them an opportunity
for comparison shopping. They will then make their reproductive choices on the
basis of what they decide must be a male’s health, hierarchical position
and the quality of the territory he is able to control.

But these females very occasionally
sing too. And when they burst into song they also trigger ovulation!

This is extraordinary. It
is reminiscent of the rabbit, which is such a famous and prolific reproducer
because, with deft natural efficiency, the female begins to ovulate when she

When I first encountered
this study of singing and ovulating doves, what flashed through my mind was
Maria’s timeless celebration as she faced her mirror in West Side Story–"I
Feel Pretty." What a song! and what an assertion of sexual pride and confidence!
And is there some connection between preparing for a date and the internal turmoil
of reproductive readiness? Of course the cycles of humans are nothing like those
of rabbits and doves. However, there may be more impact of social events on
deep physiology than we expect. Everything we learn about human beings suggests
that this is so.

Is this what the nail salons
are about? Of course not. And yet there is a hauntingly plausible trinity of
connection between doves, capuchins and people. Next time you pass one of their
sleekly clean windows, look inside a salon and ask: What is going on in there?
What are those well-dressed apes doing?