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Monkeys Are Machiavellian, Too

Wild monkeys assaulted the deputy mayor of New Delhi on Saturday as he sat on his terrace, reading the morning paper. In the scuffle, S.S. Bajwa lost his balance, tumbled from his building, and died the next day from injuries sustained in the fall.

The attackers were rhesus macaques, which have overrun parts of Delhi in the past, harassing its citizens with bites and pinches during their endless raids for food. The mischievous monkeys have even been known to break into government ministries, tearing up documents and filching snacks from bureaucrats in the Indian capital. (FWIW, Slate offers some helpful tips on how to survive your next monkey attack.)

Saturday’s tragedy has attracted new attention to Delhi’s decades-old simian scourge, drawing a pledge from the government to do more to herd the offending monkeys out of Delhi. But all previous efforts have failed. It’s not difficult to see why — humans have a hard enough time controlling urban pests when their adversaries aren’t two-foot-tall anthropoids with an almost human intelligence.

It’s the particular kind of intelligence macaques possess that has allowed them to flourish not just in Delhi, but in cities and the countryside across much of southern Asia. Meanwhile many smarter and bigger-brained primates teeter on the brink of extinction. Primate researcher Dario Maestripieri likes to call rhesus smarts macachiavellian intelligence, and says that we would be wise to think of the rhesus when we look at “that other monkey in the mirror.” It turns out, when it comes to aggressive enforcement of social hierarchy and grasp of economic necessity, macaques act remarkably like humans do.

Rhesus monkeys have long been used by scientists trying to understand human physiology (a macaque was the first primate ever to rocket into the stratosphere, and we owe our ability to identify human blood types to research done on rhesus monkeys). More and more, science is coming to understand what the macaque can teach us about our economic instincts as well.

If Saturday’s tragic attack does lead to an effective crackdown on rhesus monkeys in Delhi, will it be because they crossed that Machiavellian line into being hated more than they are feared?