Monkeyshines and Morals

Full disclosure:  I have been acquainted with Professor Marc Hauser (known affectionately as ‘Sparkles’ to us in Cage 2-F) for several years now on an up-close-and-personal basis and I think he is wicked cute.  There, I’ve said it.  Nonetheless, I will make every effort to keep my assessment of his behavior totally objective.  I am, after all, genetically wired for morally correct comportment, the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative, the whole nine yards.  That’s right, I will remain unbiased even if you offer me a banana to shade my judgment.  You can even make that two bananas, buster.

Indeed, it is strictly for moral reasons that I feel obligated to share my perspective on Professor H’s “fabricated data” case.  His lab assistants, graduate students, and the big shots at Harvard and the Federal Office of Research Integrity have all had their say, so I am compelled to put opposable thumb to iPad and set the record straight from the point of view of somebody who was actually there during the infamous experiments.  Heck, I was the experiment – it doesn’t get any more “in situ” than that.

First, let me to say that everybody makes stuff up.  That’s what separates us from the rats in Laboratory C upstairs.  Rats just see things one way and one way only—bars, pellet lever, treadmill.  For example, rats are simply incapable of seeing that treadmill as a metaphor for existential despair. No imagination.  No out-of-the-box interpretations.  It’s a blah world for those little four-leggers.  I feel sorry for them. Sparkles is a man of imagination, of inventiveness.  I respect that in a biped.

And let’s be honest here: There’s a major difference between Professor H’s intuitive whimsy and actually fabricating data.  All Sparkles has to go on is my behavior as he watches me from his perch on that stool in front of my cage.  (He does look awfully cute there, sitting with his little lab notebook in his lap, eyes fastened on my every move and gesture.  Girls, do you have any idea how it feels to have an adorable Harvard professor stare at you for hours on end, trying to figure out what you’re really thinking? I’m talking Swoons-ville.)

Take that controversial “Mirror Self-Recognition” test. The professor places a full-length mirror (think the fitting room at Alan Rouleau’s) in my cage.  Do I recognize myself?  Do I realize that it’s me I see reflected there?  Duh.  Of course, I do.  Unless you’re getting all philosophical on me and insist on questioning what the real “me” is.  My advice: Don’t go there.


In any event, while Professor H saw clearly that, indeed, I did recognize myself in that mirror (looking like I was having a serious bad hair day, I must say), some bio-psychologist at a minor state university insisted that a video of the experiment showed that “there was not a thread of compelling evidence—scientific or otherwise—that any of the tamarins had learned to correctly decipher mirrored information about themselves.”

Gimme a break, Minor State University Guy!  What did you expect me to do—wink at myself?  Come on, a girl has her pride.  Sparkles was watching me; I didn’t want to come off as vain.  And as to that business of Professor H’s corroborating videos mysteriously vanishing from his lab, I can settle that right now: I stole them.  As I say, it was a really bad hair day.  Who wants that in the archives for some smug grad student to gape at?

Okay, let’s take a look at that so-called damning “recognizing patterns of consonants and vowels” coding thingy.  I was right there, I tell you.  And I can tell you this: It was, like, soooo boring!  As we say in Cage 2-F, “Vowels, schmowels, as long as you’re healthy.” So after listening to these recorded ‘Ooos’ and ‘K-k-k-kays’ for a while, we simply tuned out.  Better things to do, ya know?

The point is I can recognize a consonant when I am half asleep.  Have you ever heard a tamarin chatter when somebody in the lab rips open a Planter’s Peanut Bar?  It’s all consonants, baby.  Vowels just don’t say it.  Professor H knows that.  He can see it in our eyes.  He’s tuned in. And he knows when we are bored, so he covers for us.  Coding, schmoding, the man knows.  He’s, like, one of us.

Sparkles would do stuff around us that we never saw him do when people were around. Like make funny faces.  And do that hilarious hopping around while scratching his chest bit.  Sure, some of the girls thought he was making fun of us, but we all knew he was just fooling around.  And then there were those precious times he would sing to us, especially around the holidays.  I will never forget the time he came into the lab around Christmastime, singing, “No-o-bel, No-o-bel, born is the King….”

Like I say, you had to be there.

Daniel M. Klein ’61, is co-author of the book “Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar.” His new book, “Travels with Epicurus,” will be published this November.