If you look at many of the traditions we have today, sometimes you wonder about the sanity of humankind. In some cases, it is quite clear what the behavior in question accomplished, but it is equally obvious that it is no longer useful. So why do we keep doing it? In 1967, professor G.R. Stephensom published a paper titled “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response in rhesus monkeys”. This study explains a great deal about how human culture originates and perpetuates.
    The study was simple. Five rhesus monkeys were placed in a cage. In this cage was a ladder with bananas at the top. Whenever a monkey climbed the ladder to get the bananas, the researchers sprayed water into the cage. The monkeys, being reasonably bright animals, put two and two together and figured out that their current dripping misery was caused by the monkey who tried to climb the ladder. They attacked the banana-grabber, and thus the group of monkeys learned not to go up the ladder.
     The scientist then replaced one of the original monkeys with a new monkey. The first think the new monkey did was attempt to get the bananas. The other monkeys apprehended and beat the newcomer, who quickly learned that the bananas were off limits, despite never having been sprayed with water.
     Once again, the researcher replaced one of the original monkeys, and once again the new monkey headed straight for those tasty bananas. The other monkeys, /including the other replacement monkey,/ attacked the new monkey. Remember that the replacement monkey did not know that grabbing the bananas led to being sprayed with water.
     One by one, the scientist replaced the remaining monkeys. When the fifth original monkey was replaced, its replacement attempted to grab the bananas. The other four monkies, /none of whom had experienced the spray of water,/ attacked it. The group, now entirely composed of new monkies, still avoided the ladder.
     This research illustrates how it is that traditions continue on after they stop being useful. We humans, however, have an advantage over rhesus monkeys. Actually, we have two. The first is language: we can enquire as to why an action that is forbidden by tradition is bad. The monkeys did not have this ability, and thus only knew “the bananas are bad” instead of “the bananas are bad because we get sprayed with water when someone tries to get them.” Our second advantage is critical reasoning. We can tell when a reason for doing something is no longer valid. In this way, we can stop following traditions when they stop being useful.
     I come from a Jewish background–I have heard much talk about the value of following the days of fasting, and of keeping Kosher. What is not mentioned is that the former was a way of stretching out food supplies just a little bit longer, while the latter prevented a great deal of disease from infected pork. These traditions were not a way of building the spirit, they were a means of survival. Children who did not follow these traditions were punished, because they could endanger their lives and the lives of their family. These children grew up, and when their children did not obey the traditions, they too were punished, and so on through the generations. Over time, the original intent was lost, but the behavior continued.
     The next time you are tempted to talk about the value of following traditions for their own sakes, ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by following that convention. Then ask yourself if that was the original intent behind the practice. If the answer is no, see if you can think of a better way of accomplishing your goal.