Often I have heard a metaphorical story employed to show the silliness in continuing with long supposed dead traditions and customs. It involves monkeys (always so nearly an equivalent for humans), and goes something like the following. Several scientists, studying the behavior of a certain species of prime-ape, place three monkeys in a metal cage, where a banana hangs from a string, accessible only by a stool. The cage however, is established to send an electric shockwave through its entirety if a monkey ascends the stool in approach of the banana. Before long, one monkey grows hungry and dares the attempt, and as the scientists intended, electricity shocks all the monkeys for the one’s efforts. Perhaps one or two more attempts are made, but in a short time, the cause and effect become quite evident to the residents of the cell. No more such attempts arise from the hardened apes. However, a new monkey is then introduced into the cage, and he too notices the banana. Following his instincts, he moves toward the stool, but before he can place a paw upon it, the other monkeys brutally assail him. The new monkey is left with many bumps and bruises, but the greater population remains safe from the electric shock, and their new neighbor has learned his lesson. Gradually, other monkeys are introduced, and a similar behavioral pattern continues. Even the monkeys that have never felt the electric shock join in beating the unfortunate newcomers. As the experiment wears on, the scientists not only remove the original three monkeys, but also the effect of the shock. In conclusion, the banana is free for any monkey to take without repercussion, but the monkeys dogmatically continue to assault any mammal so bold as to approach it, for a reason quite unknown.
The story supposes to teach the lesson that antiquated practices and traditions should be constantly examined and challenged, and I cannot deny some truth lies in this. However, like all metaphors, this one contains a fault, and the fault is a critical one. It relies on the divine intervention of the scientists to change the nature of the world in which the monkeys dwell. Furthermore, it neglects the inability of the monkeys to deduce either the initial reason for the beatings or that a grand environmental change occurred. The monkeys have no true control or knowledge over the external causations of their universe, which are relatively metaphysical in nature, for the causes are unseen. They only obtain a rudimentary scientific understanding, based in repetitive observation, that electric shock follows any that ascend the stool. After the first generation departs, the younger generations are only aware that the former generation, for some reason, felt a need to stop any who approached the banana by whatever means necessary (including violence) and respected the methods of their ancestors by continuing the tradition. As the analogy follows, the purpose behind the tradition may fade, yet the tradition itself would continue on strongly. Yet when compared with reality, I find it just as probable (perhaps more) that the reason behind certain traditions would not fade; in fact, the traditions set down before us might continue to serve a purpose though lost to us, a purpose now taken for granted. For the monkey metaphor to work, the scenario relies on an external figure changing the very laws by which the world of the monkeys operates. It is not clear that such a change occurs in our world or even in the very nature of humanity, and if it does, it is perhaps pretentious to suppose we could always so easily deduce it.
Let us then imagine that the monkeys, in their advanced thinking, grow wise to the fact that brutality is accepted in their culture without due cause or reason, against what appears to be a perfectly natural and healthy pursuit. I can well imagine one monkey stroking his chin and saying to another, “Why, it seems that we have embraced a certain measure of unnecessary violence in our society. Our opponents, fixed in their old ways, argue that the vicious measures taken by some derive from a necessity of stopping others from reaching the crescent fruit that hangs before us all. Yet, what is wrong with the banana itself, a perfectly healthy and normal ration, freely available to our species? Should it not be that we allow our brethren to partake of the banana if they so choose, and allow those who do not wish to partake respectfully to abstain?” A number of other monkeys hear their brother and cheer in enlightened agreement, yet some persist in obstinate dissent. “But such is how our ancestors have always done,” rises the shrill voice of an older monkey with a wrinkled brow. “Our system is not perfect,” he continues, “Yet it is clear that what we have now is better than what would be should we retrieve the banana, or the banana would not have been placed in such sacred isolation in the first. Our society does quite well without the banana, and thus we must continue to abstain.” To the older monkey, other voices retort, “You stand in the way of freedom!” “Nay,” cry their hardy adversaries, “You wish to destroy our fine society! You have lost your moral sense!” But the argument continues, “A moral sense based on irrational superstition! To every monkey his own beliefs! It is time you yield!” And in a moment the cage rings with the dings of raging and battling monkeys, while the true answer to why the banana ever gained such religious import remains a mystery.
Gradually, the monkeys, after much bloodshed, grow weary of their fighting, and the democracy of citizens demands a peace. The compromise requires an equal standing of belief, where each monkey may follow and pursue whatever he feels right without the threat of unwarranted attack. The leaders of either party will pat each other on the backs, likely while enjoying a fine cigar, and raise a toast, declaring, “Our history is filled with sadness, yet we have arrived at a better tomorrow! May each be now truly free, and might the great Lord of the Banana bless you all (whether He exists or not)!” And each monkey congratulates each other on the progress of their society. Then quite naturally, the most progressive of the monkeys commence an immediate and unhindered rush for the banana. As many paws suddenly encapsulate the stool, a shockwave of great magnitude releases throughout the metallic cage. We then discover the scientists never intended to discharge the electric current. In this experiment, the variable was never the electricity, but rather the monkeys. Following the shock, only the strongest few apes survive. The banana remains as ever separate and untouched. The banana remains holy.
So perhaps if a fruit was once forbidden, it remains forbidden. And if once monkeys desired the forbidden fruit of the garden, maybe it is but old stories and religion that warn them against trying to eat the fruit again, lest they become painfully aware of the knowledge of good and evil once more. Of course, monkeys will always desire bananas, but the fear is that monkeys may worship them. In worship of the banana, one may find the noblest doubts and highest thoughts become only tools in the pursuit of that object, losing their acclaimed objectivity to objectivization. The banana is worshipped as god if only because it can help a monkey to believe he is god, because God alone decides what is sacred. In conclusion, traditions and their challenges alike must not be judged alone by their practices, but more importantly by their origins as they relate to man (or monkeys), who has not changed in his mind and heart as much as the pride of modernity may have us believe. So as we may measure others by the fruit of their works, let us remember also to measure them by the fruit for which they work.
Finally, the experiment of monkeys will drag onward. And after the monkeys bear the fruit of their transgressions, a brand new monkey will enter the cage and approach the banana in his innocence. Unfortunately, the powerful monkeys may beat him to death.