Scientists and behaviorists have examined how baby monkeys learn in order to determine how human children learn. Baby monkeys and human babies are very similar. Monkeys, like people, are born with only a few basic instincts, such as knowing which way is up and to stick things in their mouths to see if it’s tasty. But quite a lot of the rest of mammal minds are blank. In this way, they can easily absorb and learn what they need to in order to survive the quirks of where ever they happen to live.
Another of the instincts left to monkeys is that they know how to recognize their main teacher. Usually this is Mom Monkey, but if Mom isn’t there, they will learn from whatever warm and comfortable presence is in their lives, even if it’s only a stuffed animal.
This was seen in rather disturbing experiments done by Harry Harlow on baby Rhesus monkeys where newborns were separated from their biological mothers and were left with two surrogate mothers. One was a wire ladder with a milk bottle attached, while the other was a cuddly though crude representation of a female monkey. The babies spent most of their time clinging to the cuddly surrogates and only went to the wire mother to feed as quickly as possible.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Baby monkeys watch other monkeys, especially their mothers, very closely and mimic their behavior. Even if the mother is not there, the baby monkey will imitate the mother substitute or anything bigger than they are that moves. This is also seen in the aforementioned baby Rhesus monkey experiments, where baby monkeys raised by surrogates had not idea how to interact with other monkeys when they got older, because they did not have a mother to teach them how.
Monkeys continue to learn throughout their lives. They learn by trial and error. If they do one action and it feels good, they continue. If they do the same action and it feels bad, they learn to stop doing the action. But they still look for teachers all throughout their lives. If they are isolated without even people for company, they will first try to find company. Not only is there fun and safety in numbers, but each of the group learns from the misadventures and triumphs of each other.
There are many benefits to having to learn how to adapt to an environment rather than be born with all of the information pre-programmed. This makes you far more flexible to survive in constantly changing conditions. For example, salmon can’t spawn unless they return to the general area where they were hatched. If they can’t get there, they can’t reproduce. But monkeys can reproduce anywhere (as long as they’re healthy enough).