Would you believe that chimpanzees have sex for "money"? The parallels within human society could be significant.

Throughout nature, only humans appear to use money so it may seem counter-intuitive that our use of money has an animal parallel. We care about money almost instinctively, which is strange for something that is quite new to evolution. Money has been around for only a few thousand years, but our ancestry goes back millions of years. Why then do we seem to have a natural affinity for money? Quite simply, money is a representation of energy or work--both of which have been around since our primordial beginnings.

Let's dig a little deeper into this before looking at the carnal implications. Before money was invented, a "barter" system was often used. A farmer would give vegetables to buy a sword or to get help building a house. People would negotiate over how many carrots a rabbit was worth. In the chimpanzee world, as in the human world, meat is valuable--and extremely so in the wild. As a result, you can see the barter system in effect in the ape world. A chimp will share food to keep friends. This is not unusual in the animal kingdom. Even lesser developed creatures, such as vampire bats, share food to create bonds, and avoid sharing food with fellow bats that were not generous in the past. They keep track of "friends," in a sense, but sharing food means spending! Whenever a creature gives food away, it is spending, just as we might spend money.

Chimps selectively spend food to keep friends, but they also go much further. They spend food to mate. As well as eating fruits, leaves, and termites, chimps also occasionally eat small monkeys when fortunate enough to get their hands on them. After one hunt, a chimp tore a piece of meat and gave it to a fellow male hunter. Researchers Wrangham and Peterson wrote what happened next: "Encouraged by these signs of generosity, a female supplicant (beggar) turns and invites the meat owner to mate. He does so, at the same time holding his valued property high to prevent a greedy hand from taking any. Then, after settling back, he rewards the willing female with a chew." (Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Mariner Books, 1996.)

This meat-for-sex exchange can be viewed as the ape version of what is sometimes called "the oldest profession," but prostitution is perhaps older than anyone first imagined. It likely dates back five million years, to our earliest common ancestor with the chimp. Prostitution is perhaps a remnant of this primal dynamic within modern human society, but there exist other remnants whereby a male's control of resources influences his ability to garner a mate or have sex.

A second--and perhaps even more representative--remnant of this primal dynamic could be the "marriage of convenience," or so-called "gold-digging." Any food that a creature does not immediately need for survival can be used as money is today. It can be spent, and in the chimp's case it was spent on reproduction. Chimps, of course, have no birth control, so the interaction has an evolutionary impact. A baby chimp can be the reward for wealth. Likewise, a human marriage influenced by wealth often results in offspring. It could perhaps be said that the attraction or admiration some of us occasionally have towards those with wealth may have partially evolved from this dynamic. Wrangham and Peterson's research shows that, during prehistory, there existed a socio-economic context for attraction to money--and those with money--which we may have unwittingly inherited.

The food-for-sex dynamic in the ape world perhaps has a third human parallel, and it is far more common. It revolves around the widespread modern pastime of dinner dating. Here, women in particular look forward to having a meal at a nice restaurant. Typically, though not always, the male of the species will pay the bill, which he may gladly do in the hope of currying favor with the female.

Rarely, if ever, do couples on dinner dates appreciate the evolutionary psychology behind this ubiquitous activity. Taking a step back, it is clear that eating is simply a biological function and sharing food together need not intrinsically be romantic, and yet dinner is often associated with romance. Why? When the prehistoric socio-economic context is taken into account, it is possible to see why dinner has evolved as a somewhat romantic pastime. Now, if only monkey were on the menu!

Pleasure is involved in eating, but it is important to look beyond mere pleasure to fully understand our evolutionary past--and therefore gain a deeper understanding of how we psychologically fit in with nature. In a sense, we circumstantially feel pleasure. While feelings like pleasure or love may help drive our actions, the evolutionary implications of those actions are what got us here. Modern pleasures, like dinner dating, are remnants of that evolutionary past. We should perhaps consider ourselves fortunate that the biological function that follows eating--namely, going to the bathroom--did not have romantic implications throughout prehistory. Otherwise, we may have found ourselves in a world where the famous Saturday Night Live skit, called "The Love Toilet," featuring a romantic toilet for two, instead of being a joke might well have been a reality.

* Includes excerpts from The Third Basic Instinct.

<SNL skit on YouTube>

About the Author

Alex S. Key

Alex S. Key is author of The Third Basic Instinct, and has successfully applied evolutionary psychology to aspects of everyday life, including belief systems.

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