Monkey See, Monkey Do

March 14, 2020

Selfie by Naruto, an Indonesian Crested Macaque

Photographers have a term called "camera face" to describe the pasted-on grin that most of us adopt whenever a camera is pointed in our direction. The phenomenon could conceivably apply to other primates, as witness a "selfie” taken by a grinning six-year-old crested macaque named Naruto, who used a camera deliberately left unattended by a British wildlife photographer in an Indonesian forest preserve. The selfie led to a protracted legal battle between the photographer and his U.S. book publisher on one side and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which claimed the image belonged to the monkey under U.S. copyright law.  

PETA had latched onto the case to advance its contention that animals have rights that have previously been reserved exclusively for humans.  The suit hinged on whether copyright ownership could be conferred on animals as well as people.  This would determine whether PETA, acting on Naruto’s behalf, would have standing in the case.  Had the monkey been human, there was no question he would own the copyright to the picture he took.  He even appeared to smile for the camera.  But would Naruto actually recognize himself if he were shown the image?  

One detail seems especially pertinent in answering this question.  The photographer, David Slater, had set the camera up with a tripod and cable release as monkeys gathered around.  He reported that they seemed fascinated by their own reflections in the camera’s wide-angle lens.  But did they recognize themselves in the lens, or did they think there was another monkey grinning back at them inside the camera?  

Mirror self-recognition is considered a key indicator in the evolutionary development of self-awareness.  Apart from humans, only a handful of other species are known to have this capability, and Naruto’s macaque cousins had never shown any aptitude for self-recognition – at least not until recently.  But now researchers are reporting that macaques can be trained to recognize themselves in a mirror.  Could it be that Naruto somehow knew he was taking a selfie?  Probably not. 

In contrast, human beings by the age of two know exactly who is making faces at them in the mirror and are even taking selfies with their parents’ cell phones.  (I can confirm that my granddaughter was mugging for the camera before she graduated from diapers to training pants.)  French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan first identified the “mirror stage” of child development, when toddlers fall in love with their reflections in a mirror, signaling the emergence of self-awareness.  This is the point at which the self becomes both the subject and object of one’s awareness – a condition that the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer regarded as “the most monstrous contradiction ever thought of.”

Every self-respecting two-year-old is a raging narcissist, although it is worth noting that the original Narcissus of Greek mythology had been placed under an enchantment that prevented him from realizing the youth gazing back at him in a pool of water was actually himself. “How I wish I could separate myself from my body,” he sighed upon seeing his own reflection in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  In a sense, that is exactly what we do when we become self-aware.  We turn ourselves inside out, simultaneously seeing the world from the inside and yet viewing ourselves as if from the outside. It is probably not something that Naruto would ever be capable of doing.  But just observe what happens the next time someone points a camera in your direction.   

Ed. Note: A federal appeals court ultimately tossed out PETA's case on Naruto's behalf, ruling that monkeys had no right to copyright protection.


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