Tuesday, June 07, 2005
I Can Quit Whenever I Want...
... but nonetheless, a friend of Vice Squad reminds me that the big vice story of the week isn't that unfortunate medical marijuana case, but rather, the new evidence that the oldest profession really is the oldest profession. It appeared in the inaugural "Freakonomics" column in this week's New York Times Magazine by Stephen Dubner and justly renowned U of C colleague Steven Levitt. The evidence came to light in the research conducted by Yale economist Keith Chen with capuchin monkeys. Chen and his colleagues taught the monkeys to use money, coins that could be traded for food. But if any monkey could trade coins for food, then perhaps that monkey would trade something else to receive those valuable coins:
Something else happened during that chaotic scene, something that convinced Chen of the monkeys' true grasp of money. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)As the friend of Vice Squad noted, the fact that the nascent sex market was squelched says as much about humans as it does about monkeys.
This is a sensitive subject. The capuchin lab at Yale has been built and maintained to make the monkeys as comfortable as possible, and especially to allow them to carry on in a natural state. The introduction of money was tricky enough; it wouldn't reflect well on anyone involved if the money turned the lab into a brothel. To this end, Chen has taken steps to ensure that future monkey sex at Yale occurs as nature intended it.