The Good Enough Squirrel Monkey

As this is the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’, I have spent some of my spare time over the last year filming primates. I have no training in this field and would consider myself an amateur and something of a novice  at that. It was my hope that in coming to understand a little better those creatures which are most closely related to us on the evolutionary tree I could comment a little more sensibly on the emerging area of evolutionary psychiatry. On a trip to London Zoo, I was able to film a Squirrel Monkey with her baby and on reviewing the footage I thought there was something of interest in relation to Winnicott’s earlier writings on Transitional Objects (see review here). I have set forth the case in the following video.

This is little more than speculation and is susceptible to a number of theoretical difficulties

1. Given that I was already familiar with Winnicott’s writings my identification of some of his themes may represent confirmation bias – i.e selective identification of the material which fits with the prior hypothesis

2. This is a single case study. Having little knowledge of Squirrel Monkeys I do not know if this represents a set of typical or atypical behaviours both for this mother and baby dyad as well as for others in the species.

3. Since triangulation with the use of language is not possible inferences about the internal mental state of the mother and baby are of dubious validity

4. The speculative conclusion about the concestor from 40 million years ago is unlikely to be verifiable. During this period the Squirrel Monkey lineage is likely to have evolved considerably and the behaviours observed in contemporary monkeys may not have been present in their ancestors even 100,000 years ago.

Nevertheless the paradigm offers useful insights bearing in mind that in infant development primitive reflexes such as the grasp reflex are still present. Furthermore the hypotheses can be tested indirectly utilising a number of means including quantitative analysis of behavioural patterns in mother-baby dyads, similar analysis in closely related species (which would add support to conservation of genes that contribute to the dyad interactions which is also an implicit assumption in the above although I would suspect that such genetic influences would likely lead to flexible generic functions rather than specific behaviours), characterisation of atypical dyads as well as a characterisation of a progressive independence of the infant.

While in evolutionary psychology and psychiatry there has been a number of references to a hypothetical characterisation of historic hunter-gatherers societies, primatology offers the possibility of identifying strongly conserved characteristics in living relatives of our species. The advent of video sharing sites such as YouTube offer the possibility of rapidly sharing footage of relevance and establishing interdisciplinary networks for further study in this area.


You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link


You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast).

TAWOP Channel

You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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