Tag Archives: Willie Poh

How Not To Be A Monkey*

*With the exception of His Supreme Eminenceness Lord Bobo Barnabus, The Wonder Typewriting Monkey

Evolutionary psychology is retrodictive like evolutionary biology, but does not enjoy the same foundation as its well-established counterpart that has strong roots in many different fields of science, including paleontology, molecular biology, genetics and anthropology. Even the widely-held notion of evolutionary psychology that women were naturally monogamous was challenged by Dan Bergner, and has recently sparked public debate. The one thing that is certain, however, is that every decision that our ancestors have made, every adaptation, every stroke of genius or pure chance and every behavioural change has resulted in the social, sexual creatures that we are today. Our cousins, ranging from amoebas to giraffes, can also claim the glory of not being extinct (yet). But what sets our existence apart from all our other cousins?

Man has often put himself on a pedestal, towering above all other living matter. Especially in religion, the concept of man being just below god and above everything else has been entrenched in the minds of many. Setting the ‘god’ bit aside, the position that man has given himself is quite telling – we are a superior species, period. When asked why, the typical range of answers would be ‘we are intelligent’, ‘we know what is wrong and right’ (some research suggest otherwise – that animals have morality), etc.

Willie Poh Kaw Lik, a lecturer at Multimedia University tries to answer this, and boldly refuses to acknowledge that the answer to life is 42.

During his talk at Pusat Rakyat LB, ‘How Not To Be A Monkey’, Willie addressed two central questions: What makes us different, and what is our purpose in life? He began with a casual discussion (everything is casual when you see your lecturer in jeans and a fedora) on the personal, individual purpose of the men and women in the room, and related it to the generic, darwinian purpose of living beings – to survive and reproduce. A comparison was drawn between a monkey’s purpose in life to a human’s purpose in life, and it undoubtedly tallied one way or another, with both organisms evidently trying to maximise its pleasure with the minimum amount of resource, and both cycles involving reproduction at some point.

Not preaching, but illustrating a sample life-purpose

A cute example of what was illustrated on the board was the parallels between ‘scratching one’s ass’ (monkey) and ‘having an iPad’ (human) , which both contributes to the overall satisfaction of a person, benefiting the mental well-being of an individual, hence making him or her more likely to live longer and reproduce. Well, depression dramatically increases one’s chances of dying from a heart attack, plus it kills the sex drive. That wasn’t such a big leap, actually. Although merely a tiny fraction, it makes up a part of the innumerable joys that occasionally punctuate the rigmarole we call life.

Once the audience saw that the goals of a human and a monkey were not too different, Willie got them to think hard about what set humans from other animals. An animated discussion ensued, with interesting suggestions ranging from ‘self-realisation’ to ‘opposable thumbs’. Willie was the alpha chimp of the session and eventually got everyone to agree with his hypothesis, which was ‘language’, as the unifying factor of all that is unique about our kind.

Channelling his inner monkey.

Being a friend of Willie, it was difficult not to agree with that bespectacled face of geekiness. He raised compelling points, which conveniently directed all other outlying points towards the crux of the matter that was ‘language’. His contention was that without language, mankind would have not advanced as much as he has done. It is true that some species of animals have some form of language, however their language is extremely limited in function. Animals cannot string their vocalizations into grammatically organised sentences. Although whether chimps can actually use language like we do is still a hot topic and being debated by scientists, it is pretty much established that no one animal has displayed the complexity in its language that is comparable to ours. Which is why, Willie argues, we have managed to build things, plan things, and so on.

It's the hairy dude on the left

Spot the monkey in the room!

By 5pm, Willie moved on to the next big question: Why should we survive?

Willie’s next compelling idea was that the ultimate worthwhile purpose in life, that even goes beyond the banal goal to survive and reproduce, is to process information and gain knowledge. This is reminiscent of people who leave behind legacies, wanting their creations, their businesses, to outlast their lifetimes. He takes care to note that this is typical of a scientific worldview, and acknowledges that it may not resonate with some who subscribe to a more god-centric viewpoint. He tied this back to the previous question of what sets us apart from other animals – language – and said that since humans are the only species we know who can record information comprehensively and to gain more knowledge, this makes humans the best species to survive.

Interestingly, the discussion led to a string of hypothetical situations. One of them was: How would you feel if Earth was in the middle of a hyperspace bypass that would allow two superintelligent species to co-author The Encyclopedia Galactica? (Not verbatim. I just wanted to have another Hitchhiker reference.) Everyone in the audience enjoyed a lively discussion, despite the occasional confusion (which is what happens when one discusses philosophy).

To sum things up, one may say that the answer to the question of the day, ‘how not to be a monkey’, was more than ‘not picking at one’s arm pits’. It was to go beyond the cycle of ‘survive –> reproduce’, and create good in the world. To learn a second (or third, or fourth) language, because learning different languages gives one invaluable perspective on human behaviour and social interaction. Favour construction over destruction, conserve wisdom, learn from our mistakes. Most importantly, to not be a monkey, one must contribute to the betterment of mankind by adding to the knowledge we currently have by becoming a creator and not just a mere consumer.