December 7, 2016

Could uniqueness become extinct? Lessons from monkey faces

Monkey Face

By Joe Perez

One of the most interesting puzzles of science today is to be found in primatology research. Primate researchers have been stymied to explain why the faces of monkeys are so amazingly, disconcertingly unique. Could the answer to this riddle lead us into greater understanding of the significance of human uniqueness and all of culture?

A recent report on io9 explains:

New World Monkeys are the strangest-looking primates on Earth and they all look nothing like each other, from the bald-headed, demon-like Uakari to the lion-maned golden marmoset to the massively mustachioed emperor tamarin up top. What’s behind this insane variety?

That’s the question UCLA researcher Michael Alfaro set out to answer that question. The monkeys of Central and South America represent a truly staggering amount of facial diversity, with many species like the emperor tamarin sporting truly epic facial hair. But it’s unlikely that all these monkeys evolved such bizarre appearances just to amuse us so what’s really going on here?

Alfaro and his team realized the monkeys’ faces weren’t the only thing that had unusually strong variation. The social structure of the different species also varied greatly, with some living almost completely solitary existences while others lived in huge populations of a hundred or more….

They discovered that the monkeys with the most complex faces tended to live by themselves, while those who lived in groups tended to have plain faces. Another factor behind facial diversity seems to be the proximity of other species. When lots of different monkey species live in close quarters, they will tend to have much more complicated faces than more isolated species.

The study has implications for understanding culture, the report suggests:

Our species, generally speaking, has quite simple, bare faces, and of course we’ve also evolved what is arguably the most sophisticated system of communication in our planet’s history. Language itself might never have emerged if we were lion-maned or hugely-mustached or even polka-dotted basically, anything that would have kept our ancestors from producing crisp, clear facial expressions.

via Why are monkeys’ faces all so bizarrely different?.

Uniqueness itself, in a biological sense, is an evolutionary emergent. And as culture evolves, we know that some of the ways uniqueness emerges become more or less prominent. If highly distinctive, unique faces may become more a thing of the past, what is to stop a massive homogenization of culture in the future?

These are questions worth asking in an age in which the leading, most prolific and influential enlightenment teachings (but not Marc Gafni’s Unique Self teaching) encourage a sort of radically undifferentiated sort of realization. Is spiritual uniqueness itself something that could become extinct unless we preserve and cultivate it?

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