Ape Egos

As vertebrates, mammals, and primates, we evolved with a brain theatre that:

  1. unconsciously monitors interior body states (BACKSTAGE to our conscious awareness) in deeper midbrain & hindbrain (brainstem & cerebellum) areas, regarding environmental signals–like in other vertebrates
  2. emotionally influences our conscious feelings, perceptions, and ideas (from backstage to the SPOTLIGHT of consciousness) in limbic brain areas–like in other mammals
  3. cognitively stages spatial and social relationships (around the spotlight) in parietal and frontal brain areas, involving complex memories (as AUDIENCE) in temporal lobe areas, especially the hippocampus–like in other primates (but with distinctly right-cortical MIMETIC and left-cortical NARRATIVE functions)

BUT how MONKEY- and APE-LIKE are WE?


Like other animals, we seek PLEASURE in our environment and withdraw from PAIN–or seek to remedy internal pain, such as hunger and thirst.  Unlike other animals, our species evolved an extreme flexibility to adapt in many environments, or change them, far beyond instinctual norms.  Yet we still bear the primal drives of survival and mating, as competitive and cooperative mechanisms for reproducing a specific genetic code in each of us.

For us, pleasure and pain, survival and mating, involve ideas of SELF (or ego)–with personal achievements in our flexible creativity “living on” beyond us as our cultural progeny.

This comes from the past, too, from the evolution of our monkey to ape to human ancestors.  For millions of year (6 million since our common ancestor with chimps), the brain theatres of our hominid predecessors became BIGGER AND BIGGER.  Successful generations migrated out of Africa into new environments, imaginatively adapting and extending the body’s powers through new tool use.  But there was a limit to how big the infant’s brain could be and still fit through the birth canal (without that becoming too big for the mother to walk upright and not have her guts fall out).  So the top layers of our brain, the neocortex, evolved many more folds than in our primate cousins–extending the computer power of our inner theatre, like the increasing technologies it produced between brains.

From prehistory to various historical periods, our ancestors’ social theaters became bigger and bigger, too.  They became CULTURAL ENVIRONMENTS for the survival and mating of each person’s genes, identity elements, and ideas (or “memes”).  MORAL RITUALS, enforced collectively and absorbed within the brain’s theatre, became the flexible yet rigid ordering of social behavior, building on or repressing our animal instincts.

Theatre, film, television, videogames, and other mass media today are the PLAYING SPACES in which we challenge and change, yet also repeat and maintain our social rules, through remnant animal drives, but beyond instincts.

Human morals vary greatly around the globe and in subcultures even within one culture. Yet the roots of morality may be found in our primate relatives, perhaps reflecting their evolution in our common ancestors.


Capuchin monkeys, in lab experiments, will protest the unfairness when others are given a better reward (grapes, instead of cucumber slices) as payment for the same job.  They throw the food in anger, rather than eating it.  Chimps act likewise but sometimes also refuse to eat the better food when seeing that a colleague gets a lesser food for the same task–showing an even greater sense of fairness and cooperation.

Rhesus monkeys, in lab experiments, will deny themselves food if they learn that a member of their social group is suffering (screaming) more when they take food.  They will sacrifice for the other monkey in this way, starving themselves for many days–either due to emotional contagion (directly suffering when the other suffers) OR compassion for the other’s suffering (with indirect, more Self-to-Other empathy).

On the other hand, chimpanzees in the wild use such emotional contagion to trick the higher ups.  If a lone chimp finds some food, it might give a false warning call about a predator, so it can eat some of the food first, while others scatter.  Or a younger, smaller chimp might sneak away with a female to mate–avoiding the watchful eyes of and potential punishment from an alpha male through such a diversion.

Some scientists (led by Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten) have called this Machiavellian Intelligence because it involves a sense of Self and Other deception, perhaps showing the evolution of our vastly greater human ability to deceive others and ourselves.  If our monkey and ape ancestors were competing at such theatrical tricks, then those who deceived themselves as well as the other might have been less likely to give away their false intentions–through emotional contagion (according to Robert Trivers).


This also relates to Self recognition in the mirror test and to “Theory of Mind.”  Today, all the great apes (except for gorillas), along with dolphins and elephants, can recognize themselves in a mirror when a mark is placed, unbeknownst to them, on their foreheads.  They seem Self aware enough to see that a red mark on the forehead of the face in the mirror is their own.  But other animals ignore the mark, suggesting less Self awareness.  How much are monkeys and apes also aware, like us, of the other “person”–with a  Theory of Mind (ToM) about the other’s different perspectives and beliefs?

According to studies by Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, baboons understand others’ intentions–as when misdirecting them with false warning calls–but not the other’s perspective or beliefs.  Sadly, a mother baboon walking on all four legs across a river will not notice that the infant clinging to her belly is underwater, having a different perspective of that experience.  Her infant may drown before the mother reaches the other side.

In tests with human children, before the age of 4, they likewise do not express an awareness that another person has a different perspective.  But starting at about age 4, children do show ToM about the other.  We become increasingly aware of others’ views about us and the rest of the world, mirroring and extending our own identity and desires–between the inner and outer theaters of our brains.

A chimp will console another subordinate chimp when it is punished by a superior (hugging it and kissing its wound).  A chimp will also seek to reconcile with another in its group after a fight.  Chimps often build alliances by trading favors (such as grooming, food, and sex), even with a delay between giving and getting.

Yet groups of chimps will viciously attack a lone, outsider chimp that strays into their territory (catching it, beating it to death, tearing its body apart, and drinking its blood).

We humans, with our ape egos inherit both of these characteristics: compassion for an injured colleague OR contagious rage at an outsider.  We can subjectively empathize and understand the other’s view, with ToM, or objectify the other as alien.  It depends on whom we see as kin, as a member of our in-group or not.


Bonobos, like the one above, go further in the direction of “make love not war.”  Females lead bonobo groups, unlike the male leaders of chimp groups, who fight for power and territory.  If rival bonobo groups meet, their alpha females will rub their genitals together, reducing the tension and allowing the groups to share the territory.  Within the bonobo group, there are many brief sexual exchanges throughout each day, between various members (male & female, female & female, male & male, adult & young), smoothing conflicts and affirming cooperative bonds.

In our daily lives, as human apes, we should be aware of how our primal drives to survive and reproduce become transformed, especially in stressful moments, into theatrical scenes of conflict and passion.  Our ape egos develop many more complex rivalries and territorial disputes–even when the basic survival of our body or offspring is NOT at stake.

Brainstem drives and limbic emotions, backstage in our brain theatre, sometimes flood the mind’s representations of Self and Other–with panic, fear, rage, or lust.  But we can watch such temptations arise, before acting on them, and laugh at such tragicomic impulses.  Is my life really in danger–or just my ego?  Am I deceiving myself with Machiavellian tricks when I hate that person OR fantasize about another as a love object?

Our vertebrate, mammal, and primate ancestors lived and mated for millions of years, creating a powerful, theatrical legacy in and between our brains today. Will YOU become more aware of it, in your Self and the Other, improving that inner and outer theatre each day, for future generations?

Other apes reconcile after fights and show compassion for wounded friends.  Yet they may gang up against, tear apart, and consume a border-crossing enemy, even when the Other is a relative or former friend, an exiled member of their group.  Which way will we take that ape-ego theatre, toward reconciliation and compassion OR scapegoating and sacrifice?


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