Big brains don’t make you smarter about everything

I was just admiring the beautiful sari of the young woman ahead of me, when she let out a scream and fell flat on her backside. The bag she had been holding had just been snagged, and the thief was just a few steps down from her, brazenly going through it’s contents, pausing occasionally to warn her off with a glare. She was too terrified to move.

I’ve always wondered what I would do if faced with a situation like this, and now I know: I laughed. And it wasn’t just a little laugh either; it was a big belly laugh.

Maybe I’m a bad person.

In my defense, the young woman’s whole family was laughing too – and they were laughing way harder than me; it was tough not to. The thief in question was only a foot tall, and kind of cute, as macaques tend to be.

Macaque with ice cream cone

Trying to figure out what to do with ice cream

It was one of many thefts I saw today. Earlier, I’d seen another macaque steal an ice cream cone right out of a boy’s hand. And moments after the sari clad bottom hit the stair below me, I heard another scream and turned just in time to see macaque running up a pole with a bag of peanuts I’m pretty sure he didn’t buy himself.


So here’s my travel tip for the day: if you run across a troop of monkeys, and you happen to be holding food, just give it to them. It’s easier on everyone.

Macaque with peanuts

After the peanut heist

Macaques think about food more than Parisians, and one reason for that is the inferiority of their spit. Turns out one of the things that distinguishes us from other primates is a few extra copies of the amylase gene – something I learned on the train this morning (from the June 9 issue of New Scientist) as I was on my way to Batu Caves (the site of the aforementioned thefts). That means that we produce more salivary amylase, the digestive enzyme that breaks down starches – and that allows us to extract more energy from starchy grains and roots. Other primates are stuck eating lower calorie foods like fruits and leaves, and the net of it is that they have to spend much of their time foraging and chewing. Fun fact.

But here’s the irony: thanks in part to our saliva, we can support big energy-hungry brains without eating constantly, which means we think less about food, and – based on my observations today – are dumber than relatively small-brained macaques when it comes to food and food waste. Photographic evidence follows…

Monkey drinking from carton

Some human thought this was garbage, but this macaque realized there was still food to be had here

Macaque eating flowers

Most humans don’t realize flowers are food – even this infant knows better

Macaque eating coconut

Many folks drink the milk then throw them away, but there is lots of food left, and it’s worth the effort to get it out

Macaque eating banana

If you’re smart, nothing goes to waste

I posted more pictures if Batu and Malaysia here.


18 thoughts on “Big brains don’t make you smarter about everything

  1. Scott and I were having a discussion last night about the human brain and how we’re “wired” by the older parts of our brain to eat rich, high calorie, high energy food (for when food’s scarce). Today, we continue to have evolving, newer areas of the brain (which scientists still struggle to understand) that are able to make conscience choices against all of that — given that our food source is far from scarce anymore — but the old brain still wins out for most people. And now we have an obesity epidemic.

    The human species may have an additional gene that causes us waste more (and we’re really good at it too). but we’re also getting fatter for the same reasons. I think it’s time we upright, wingless animals begin using more of our brain real estate so that those cool GENES we’ve evolved over the millenia aren’t put waste as well!

    That’s a great post, JF. I was gripped from the beginning when the unknown thief stole her bag. Excellent writing.

    PS — Batu Caves!!! Uh, jealous.

    • Thanks Shannon … glad you enjoyed it. You’d probably really enjoy the New Scientist article as well (unfortunately it’s not available on line). Mapping the human and chimp genomes has led to some interesting insights of late.

      Agree that our genes work against us on the obesity front, though I think they have some help from the brains of folks whose only concern is with profit – folks who have learned how to use our genes against us.

      And yes, Batu Caves rock … did you get there when you lived in Indonesia?

      • I think ye nailed it on the head here Jean-François. Folks have indeed learned how to use our genes against us… for maximum profit. First to make us fat, then to profit from the services to make us otherwise. Complete with all the medical issues that go with being overweight. It’s the perfect system. Create the problem, then profit from the solution. ;)

        Interestingly enough my grandparents on both sides of the family ate just about everything under the sun, and surprise surprise, never had any issues with being overweight.

      • It was always on our agenda to witness Thaipusam close up — and Batu Caves is the place to go! I have fantastic video of Malaysia (we lived just north of Malacca on the west coast) that still reside on tape media. Reeeealy need to get them dubbed off to digital so I can share. Until then, I will live vicariously through your southeast Asia posts. Terima kasih!

      • Thaipusam must have been amazing. I’ve never been to a Hindu festival, but I should have a chance this year. I’ll be in KL a lot over the next few months. The monkeys don’t quite make up for me being away from Bonnie Lee, the cats and the kitchen, but they are kinda cute.

  2. I fell in love with Japanese Macaques when I was first saw them lounging in hot springs. I have since learned that they are also excellent at taking advantage of humans all over the world, from stealing food to getting hammered on our cocktails. There have been scientific studies that suggest these animals are self-aware and very intelligent. These smart, adorable creatures could teach us a lot about living in the moment and adapting to our environment.

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