What Are Those Well-Dressed Apes Doing?

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The imperial women of wealthy cities set a high standard of personal decor. They turn the monthly flimflam of the fashion magazines into real people you can see in the streets, eateries, shops and the seemingly ceaseless cavalcade of charity balls. The various schemes of costume, makeup and creating a "look" that becomes the desirable mode of the moment provide the Living Theater of the sexual drama. Large cities like New York and Washington are famously peopled with an excess of exploratory women over available men. However drastic the imbalance, among its results are loneliness and sharpened competition in the sexual marketplace.

The nail salon is a perfect location for dealing with both issues at relatively modest cost. The omnipresent mirrors and the attention of the attendants provide to the client a sense of unostentatious luxury and at least temporarily elevated personal importance. It's the equivalent of "getting your hair done" without provoking any uncertainty about which style and cut to aim for. It is all quite straightforward.

And yet there's more to it, rather a lot more. Among all the primates, including us, grooming interactions are highly satisfying and appear to generate positive impacts on mental and physical health. If you survey a group of nearly all the varieties of primates?a few are almost always solitary?you will see the individual animals in a clump, and very often they are in direct physical contact, perhaps carefully inspecting each other's skin, perhaps removing insects, perhaps mining for flecks of salt from dried sweat, which they then consume.

It's obvious that these interactions are gratifying, and animals excluded from them are usually the lowest-ranking members of the group. The higher the status, the more the grooming is the general rule. Subdominants appear willing to groom the dominant animals, and the bonds of social structure may be as well reflected by picking fleas as more aggressive interactions.

And the animals are expert groomers. They appear to know what works to create social affinity. It can be a quite striking skill. Once I visited a friend who was doing research on chimps at the London Zoo and she gave me to hold a juvenile, which was in itself a generous emotional experience. But then the creature did something I thought remarkable. About three months earlier I had endured a fairly clear cut on the top of my hand, near the thumb. It had healed well and, I thought, completely. But not to the chimp, who instantly perceived the nearly invisible memoir of the wound and began with sweet enthusiasm to pick away any invisible insects and then licked the area intently. And it was only a first date. You had to be there. But you also had to melt.

Grooming is clearly not solely part of the entertainment industry. Some fascinating research on capuchin monkeys of Central and South America by a Columbia University graduate student in anthropology, Ximena Valderrama, and several coauthors reveals that the animals have learned that if they smear their bodies with a kind of 4-inch millipede, the insects' chemicals with which they defend themselves also provide stronger insect repellency than any known human product. Since they live in an area afflicted with bountiful mosquitoes, their mastery of primate pharmacology provides remarkable benefit to their quality of life. These mosquitoes are not only as annoying as only mosquitoes can so vilely be, but also they carry the eggs of a miserable fly that lodges beneath the skin until they emerge as maggots, bringing infection and pain. To prevent all this, the capuchins rub the millipede over their entire bodies. They pass the desirable millipedes from one to the other, like a 1960s spliff. If an individual animal is unable to secure an insect of his own, he will rub his body against an already-repellent chum. While the animals are normally hierarchical about resources and grooming, in this matter they seem to be completely egalitarian. Everyone gets the medicine in a kind of universal monkey healthcare.

For some reason, the nail salons reminded me of a dazzling piece of research on the behavior of doves by Mei-fang Cheng of the Institute for the Study of Animal Behavior at the Rutgers University campus at Newark. With jaw-dropping virtuosity, Dr. Cheng was able to develop astonishingly punctilious techniques for studying the interaction between events in the brain, the endocrine system and the behavior of this tiny bird. She found an unexpected feature of the creature's sexual repertoire. Among songbirds and the dove too usually it's the male who bursts into song to advertise his desirability to females and to allow them an opportunity for comparison shopping. They will then make their reproductive choices on the basis of what they decide must be a male's health, hierarchical position and the quality of the territory he is able to control.

But these females very occasionally sing too. And when they burst into song they also trigger ovulation!

This is extraordinary. It is reminiscent of the rabbit, which is such a famous and prolific reproducer because, with deft natural efficiency, the female begins to ovulate when she copulates.

When I first encountered this study of singing and ovulating doves, what flashed through my mind was Maria's timeless celebration as she faced her mirror in West Side Story?"I Feel Pretty." What a song! and what an assertion of sexual pride and confidence! And is there some connection between preparing for a date and the internal turmoil of reproductive readiness? Of course the cycles of humans are nothing like those of rabbits and doves. However, there may be more impact of social events on deep physiology than we expect. Everything we learn about human beings suggests that this is so.

Is this what the nail salons are about? Of course not. And yet there is a hauntingly plausible trinity of connection between doves, capuchins and people. Next time you pass one of their sleekly clean windows, look inside a salon and ask: What is going on in there? What are those well-dressed apes doing?

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