Culture

Top 5 Reasons To Give Thanks For Being Primate

Look at those delicate digits; they're No. 4 on our list. i i

Look at those delicate digits; they're No. 4 on our list. Matt Cardy/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Look at those delicate digits; they're No. 4 on our list.

Look at those delicate digits; they're No. 4 on our list.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Once again it's time for our annual holiday of gratitude, when family and friends gather in thanksgiving for each other, for the wonders of nature, for meaningful work, for the chance to make a positive difference in the world.

And, of course, for being primate.

If you haven't yet scripted our million years of shared evolution with monkeys and apes into your holiday plans, there's still time! It's my anthropological pleasure to provide my top 5 reasons why we should give thanks for being primate:

5. Food. Whatever delectables you crave for your Thanksgiving table, there's a primate diet to match. From the fruit- and insect-loving monkeys of South America to the vegetarian apes of Africa, with the occasional carnivorous impulse thrown in, the primate palate is diverse. Monkeys and apes are, though, raw foodists. If cooked food is more your style, remember that the first Homo erectus fire-makers of two million years ago were primates too.

4. Fingers. When you pass the rolls, plucking the best specimen off the top for yourself and popping it into your mouth, you show off a wondrous primate adaptation: the grasping hand. Primates, unlike almost all other mammals, consume food by selecting and processing their desired items with their mobile fingers (and, maybe, even with the aid of hand-crafted tools). Think about it: cats, dogs, horses, elephants, smart as whips they may be, but what do they eat with? Their faces (or face-extensions, like trunks), plunged right into their food. Aren't holiday dining customs more elegant the primate way?

3. Culture. Maybe you like things done just so; if the sweet potatoes aren't made this way and the cranberries that way, it just doesn't seem like Thanksgiving? That's your primate tendency for cultural traditions coming out. The environment shapes behavior to a degree in all species, but sometimes it comes down to "just the way we do things." Chimpanzees often co-exist with smaller primates called bush babies. But only in Senegal do they fashion and use spears to hunt the bush babies out of treeholes. The difference is cultural, a matter of custom. Primates innovate as well as imitate, but tradition counts for a lot.

2. Drama. If you feel a frisson of tension among the relatives crowded around that Thanksgiving table, just take it in stride, that's a primate thing too. Primates are social beings and emotional ones. The baboons I followed around the Kenyan savanna were forever squabbling and status-striving, getting on each other's nerves. Primates keep tallies of who does what to whom and why. It's just our way. While yes, sometimes the drama does result in real violence, most often it does not; the combatants may seek each other out and reconcile, so that their bonds are even stronger than before. Hugs help.

1. Joy. The prime rule of being primate? Family and friends matter, and reunions with them bring excitement — I'll even say joy. From pair bonds in marmosets to kin alliances in macaque troops or gorilla groups, it's more than the edible fruit and flowers that bind individuals together. That's our big-brained, deep-feeling heritage. It's woven through our human minds and our hearts.

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow primates!


You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.