Are animals economists? In one sense the answer is yes.
Adam Smith, who founded the discipline of modern economics, wrote in his book on the wealth of nations, “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”1 This statement was the basis for his claim that among all Earth’s life, only humans engage in barter economics and the modern-day belief that trade is what makes us human.2
I read Adam Smith’s famous book on economics theory when I was in high school. Even then, I recognized a caveat in Smith’s claim. Once our family moved out of an apartment in Montreal to a house in Vancouver, we always had at least one pet if not two or three. Our pets would not barter with one another but they would barter with us.
Macaques Have Learned the Value of Trade
Now, a field study conducted in Indonesia affirms what I observed growing up in Vancouver.3 Three psychologists from the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, led by Jean-Baptiste Leca teamed up with a veterinarian in Bali to study the large, free-ranging population of long-tailed macaques that live around the Uluwatu Temple (see figure 1).
Situated on top of a spectacular promontory overlooking the ocean, Uluwatu Temple is a popular tourist destination. During the past two decades, the macaques living on the temple grounds have learned that they need not forage for food if they appropriately engage the tourists. Leca’s team observed that the macaques’ engagement with the tourists goes far beyond looking cute and begging for food treats, a phenomenon observed broadly among bird and mammal species and seen by domestic pet owners everywhere.
Leca and his colleagues observed that the older macaques were especially skilled at taking objects of high value from the tourists. Examples included wallets, cameras, and designer sunglasses (see figure 2). The macaques would then display the goods they had “borrowed” but would release the items to their human owners only if they received a food treat that was of high value to them.
Leca’s team observed that the older macaques were much more skilled at lifting valuable items from tourists than the younger macaques. They also noted that over time the macaques became more selective about what they would take. Experience taught them, for example, that they could get a better food treat in trade for a smartphone, wallet, or passport than they could for a woman’s hair clip. They learned it was more profitable to trade with the human they stole from rather than other humans. Through long-term social contact with humans, macaques on the Uluwatu Temple grounds learned that they received better and more consistent food treats when they waited patiently for a food exchange proposal to trade for a “borrowed” item.
Personal Observations Affirm Research
My wife Kathy and I observed a similar barter economy displayed by macaques during a trip we made a year ago to Gibraltar. Our bus driver asked Kathy if she would like a photo with one of the free-ranging macaques on the Rock of Gibraltar. The driver waved a food treat at a macaque he knew, whereupon the macaque jumped on top of a rail, snuggled up near Kathy, stroked her shoulder, touched her hair, and stared into my camera (see figure 3). I was not able to take the photo before the macaque backed up slightly from Kathy and looked away. The driver told me that if we had offered a more valuable food treat the macaque would have posed for a longer time with Kathy.
Clearly, Adam Smith underestimated the sociality of mammals. In the presence of humans they can become incredibly adept in understanding how to interact for the benefit of gain.
Challenge to Human Exceptionalism?
Leca and his colleagues referred to the macaque behaviors they observed as “token-robbing” and “token/reward-bartering.”4 The tokens (items robbed from humans), they concluded, were a monetary system in which the items that were of no intrinsic value to the macaques could be traded for items (food rewards) that were of high value to the animals. Furthermore, like the currency humans use for trade, the macaques understood that some tokens were of much higher value than others. Such observations led Leca’s team and others to conclude that symbolic capability may not be unique to humans among Earth’s life.
The Bible strongly teaches that we humans are unique among Earth’s creatures. Is it possible that the field studies conducted by Leca’s team challenge the doctrine of human exceptionalism?
Soulish Animals Have Been Designed to Bond with Humans
I believe that this research provides more, not less, scientific evidence for the Bible’s teaching on the distinctions between nonhuman mammals and humans, between humans and God, and the relationships among nonhuman mammals, humans, and God. As I document and explain in Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job,5 God designed nephesh (soulish) animals, which includes all nonhuman mammals, to socially relate with and to serve and/or please human beings. We should not be surprised, therefore, that nonhuman mammals demonstrate greater capabilities when they are emotionally bonded to and dependent upon humans than when they are not. The macaques on the Uluwatu Temple grounds engaged in token-robbing and token-bartering only with humans, not with one another or with other species of life.
The cornerstone of the biblical doctrine of human exceptionalism holds that humans, alone among all Earth’s life, are endowed with the capacity to relate to God. Being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) means that we share with God certain attributes that allow us to relate to, serve, and please him. Likewise, nonhuman mammals (and birds) share certain attributes with us that allow them to relate to, serve, and please us. Leca’s team added to the scientific evidence for these shared attributes.
Macaques are cute, fun-loving animals, but they also teach us important philosophical/theological lessons. As they were designed to relate to and depend upon a higher species, we humans were designed to relate to and depend upon a higher Being. As they were designed to serve and please us, we were designed to serve and please God. As macaques manifest their full potential and capabilities only when they are bonded to and serving a higher species, likewise our full potential and capabilities are manifested only when we are bonded to and serving a higher Being, namely God.
- Adam Smith, “Of the Principle Which Gives Occasion to the Division of Labour,” An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, book1, chapter 2 (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776), 1.
- Dan Sanchez, “Trade Is What Makes Us Human: It Was the Larger ‘Collective Brain’ of Homo Sapiens That Made the Difference,” Foundation for Economic Education (August 28, 2017).
- Jean-Baptiste Leca et al., “Acquisition of Object-Robbing and Object/Food-Bartering Behaviours: A Culturally Maintained Token Economy in Free-Ranging Long-Tailed Macaques,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 376, no. 1819 (March 1, 2021): id.20190677, doi:10.1098/rstb.2019.0677.
- Leca et al., 8.
- Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 105–73.