Hugs vs. spears: You be the editor

Imagine you were an editor, and two stories came across your desk. One shows that chimpanzees use spears, giving insight into the origins of weaponmaking and violence in human society.

The other article shows that spider monkeys hug to avoid fights:

Hugging diffuses the tension when two bands of monkeys meet, say the British researchers who made the discovery. Without these calming embraces, the situation can escalate into aggression and even physical attacks, they report.

The researchers studied wild spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi), which live in the forests of Central and South America. These monkeys live in large groups, but split into short-lived, constantly changing groups of a few individuals to travel more easily in search of food.

The hugs seem to be ways of signaling friendship and avoiding conflict before it erupts.

Most editors and bloggers ran the first story, but the second is more unexpected in my opinion. Which would you highlight, and why?

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I understand the question--but your premise is a little off. The spear story wasn't about gaining insight into the evolution of human violence, it was about gaining insight into the evolution of tool use.

By Diane Richards (not verified) on 27 Feb 2007 #permalink

The spear story wasn't about gaining insight into the evolution of human violence, it was about gaining insight into the evolution of tool use.

A fine line, IMHO.

As a blogger and editor, well...

I actually blogged the first piece of news, and didn't know about the second until I read this. So there's that.

And I still prefer the first. The second piece of news confirms an old insight -- hugs are nice! -- while the first, to me, a layman, is genuinely startling: Some earthbound species besides humans has the ability to create technology, and not just technology, but weapons technology.

I'm certain there's other evidence of that point, too. But there's something primal (no pun intended) about the idea of a monkey with a spear. That's perhaps not entirely rational, but there's a certain amount of "gut" that goes into making editorial decisions. It's not science; it's art.

Joel, I think it's interesting that you find the spear story more surprising, since it fits in with a "nature red in tooth and claw" trope. Tool use among chimpanzees has indeed been documented before, though not with anything as iconic as a spear. It's very 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hugging runs counter to our expectations of non-human primates, IMHO. This forces us to question a Hobbesian take on the state of nature and give peacemaking its place in the natural world.

Josh: I don't disagree with a thing you say here. But -- and you've surely made this point before -- I suspect most editors don't have the level of science knowledge to frame the stories in the manner you suggest.

They also, by and large, lack subtlety. (And, hell, I'll plead guilty to this myself.)

Put those two facts together, then give an editor a story that uses the words "MONKEYS" and "SPEARS," and they'll swing for the low-hanging fruit every time. (No pun intended.)

I'm not going to suggest this is a good thing. And I'm not certain how we go about ramping up scientific literacy among journalists.

Joel: My goal in posing the question I did here was not to suggest that one story or the other is somehow obviously better, but to point out what these choices say about us and our views of nature in general and our primate relatives in particular.

The chimp story is definitely news and deserves the play it's gotten. I think it also plays off on an interesting set of tropes in how we think about nature, and that makes it an easier story to run on CNN. Monkeys hugging somehow has a less newsworthy "feel." We could argue about whether chimps tossing spears is really that different from the rest of what's on TV, while a segue from almost anything to spider monkeys hugging would seem strained.

That isn't the media's fault, I think it taps into the same forces that compelled chimps to figure out how to make a spear.

I might point out that chimps are much closer relatives of ours than monkeys, so perhaps chimp behavior is more relevant.

Bonobos also are more closely related to us than monkeys are, and of course, you know how those swinging chimps resolve conflicts. SEX! With everyone, all the time!

What's interesting is to compare chimps with Bonobos. Chimps have to compete with other primates for food supplies, so they're more fierce in going after it. Bonobos, on the other hand, live in a virtual Eden, with plenty of food for anybody and no competition for it.

One can draw comparisons between humans who live in areas with scarce resources versus those who live in areas where there is plenty. I heartily recommend reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs & Steel" and "Collapse" for insight into how availability of resources shapes human societies.

I don't think spear use as a hunting tool for prey is weapons technology. They aren't using spears against eachother (yet, to my knowledge). That's just my opinion.