Revealed: capitalist monkeys

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Monkey business really does exist, according to scientists who have found that primates engage in a version of capitalism where goods are exchanged for labour.

Monkey business really does exist, according to scientists who have found that primates engage in a version of capitalism where goods are exchanged for labour.

A study of capuchin monkeys - small but big-brained South American primates - has discovered that the animals have a barter system where food is paid in return for work. Capuchins, like chimpanzees, hunt in groups but only one monkey makes the capture, which is shared equally with those who took part in the effort.

Scientists at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, wanted to know whether this was simple sharing or a more sophisticated barter system, and devised an experiment in which two caged capuchins had to co-operate in pulling a tray to deliver food to one of them.

"The second monkey helped to pull the tray even though there was no guaranteed reward of food for him," said Frans de Waal, who devised the experiment with Michelle Berger. Once the "worker" had been paid in food, he was much more eager to help out in future. The research, published in the journal Nature, also found the system only worked if the monkeys could see each other.

"Society wouldn't exist without co-operative behaviour. Tit-for-tat is essential for our economies," Dr de Waal said. So it seems monkey business is the acceptable face of capitalism.

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