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About the Royal Society

Listen to mother

06 January 2010

Some people might complain that the youth of today don’t pay enough attention to their elders, but scientists have discovered that monkeys respond more to older members of their group.  The research, published today in Biology Letters, suggests that the old (human) advice to listen to your elders may be genetically rooted.

The researchers recorded groups of Campbell’s monkeys interacting, and measured the response rate to calls made by monkeys of different ages.  Despite the fact that the older monkeys generally made fewer calls, they received a much higher response rate within the group.  The authors of the study point out that “Old female chimpanzees contribute to the community by having a stabilizing role.  It would therefore make sense that they receive more attention.”

However, the increased attention paid to older monkeys may not just be because they are perceived to be due more respect.   The researchers found that younger monkeys are much worse at following the accepted rules of monkey interaction, frequently talking over each other and failing to wait for their turn.  It is possible that the older monkeys learn these rules over time, and their reward for following the rules of polite conversation is increased attention from the group to what they say.

This is the first study to show that primates specifically respond to older members of their group more than younger individuals.  Our close evolutionary relationship with monkeys means that this research is likely to have important ramifications for work on the evolution of human language and social behaviour.  If listening to one’s elders is something we have evolved from our simian ancestors, it is possible that other important features of language and social interaction may have evolved in our species’ distant past, rather than being relatively recent cultural inventions.

Read the full article in Biology Letters.