The Zen Master and the Infanticidal Primates

A recent paper has concluded that prevention of infanticide was the most likely precursor to monogamous mating systems in some primate species. Another paper suggested a different possibility in mammals more generally, namely that under certain ecological conditions females are so dispersed that the best strategy for a male is to remain close to a rare female when he finds her. This prevents other males from mating with her, and increases the chances of successfully passing on his genes. 


Langur mother with dead infant. (From

I’m still sorting through what all this means, and wonder if the search for broad patterns oversimplifies things too much. As Peter Gray put it: “It’s all so confusing, if lead researchers can’t seem to find similar evolutionary grounds behind social monogamy.” Anyway, if prevention of infanticide really was the key to jump-starting monogamy (at least in some primate species), it makes me think of its downstream consequences. This reminds me of the parable of the Zen Master and the Little Boy.



One day, some of the adult primate males started killing some of the infants in the troop, hoping to get the mothers to mate with them in order to have their baby, now that they were childless and needed to restart the process of having kids. All the other primates said, “How barbaric!” 

The Zen Master said, “We’ll see.”

Then, some of the male primates started staying closer to the females they had mated with to keep their infants safe. All of the other primates said, “How nice!” 

The Zen Master said, “We’ll see.”

Soon, the males started sharing in some of the care for their own infants, providing not just protection but also nurturing and food. Again, the other primates said, “How wonderful!” 

The Zen Master said, “We’ll see.”

Sometime after that, the primate brains became able to fall in love, strengthening their pair-bonds with their mates through a complex cocktail of neurological factors. This made them obsessive and euphoric for their beloved, leading them to write poems about love, build the Taj Mahal, create films like “Before Sunrise,” and even create Valentine’s Day. The other primates (again) said “How wonderful!” 

The Zen Master said, “We’ll see.”

Then, some of them fell out of love or had their hearts broken by some other primate who didn’t love them back, leading some of them to become depressed and melancholic. The primates said, “How sad!” 

The Zen Master said, “We’ll see.”

Later, the primates came up with the ideas of ‘soul-mates’, weddings, and marriage as a way to cement their bonds through institutions. The primates said, “How wonderful.”

The Zen Master said, “We’ll see.”

In some places, this led to the marital industrial complex, where the average wedding in the U.S. cost more than $28,000. The primates said, “It’s like a fairy tale come true!”

The Zen Master said, “….”

Somewhere in this storyline, the primates became afraid that their mates could one day find someone else or no longer see them as their soul mates or become unfaithful. This made them jealous and guarded. Sometimes they blew up entire relationships because of jealousy, leading to bitterness, confusion, and strange concepts like no-fault divorce and alimony. The primates said, “How terrible.”

The Zen Master said, “Primates be crazy sometimes.”

Afterwards, some of the primates made television shows like “The Bachelor” or “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” to exploit the pursuit of love.

The Zen Master said, “I’m out of here.” 

Then the primates came up with self-help books to learn what true love is, and how to find it, and how to keep their marriage fresh, and how to avoid divorce. They drove themselves even more crazy. The primates said, “True love doesn’t exist.”

The Zen Master said, “How did we get here, again?”

Some of the primates said love is real and often beautiful , and we think we can prove it. But it is imperfect, just like everything else in this world.

The Zen Master said, “We’ll see.”



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