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Monkeys and the Uncanny Valley (Stephen Siperstein)

October 27, 2009

As related to our class’s discussion today about William Gibson’s Neuromancer, posthumanism, and hybrids, I thought I might bring to your attention these two recent articles, one from Science Daily and one from Wired Science, both about a recent experiment conducted by researchers at Princeton University that demonstrated that macaque monkeys, like humans, experience a phenomenon known as the ‘uncanny valley.’  The phenomenon was first noted in humans by Masahito Mori, a Japanese scientist, in 1970.  As the Wired article states, Masahito first noticed that “people presented with likenesses [of human beings] of increasing realism respond with increasing empathy, right up to the point where the likenesses are almost real. At that point, people are repulsed.”  The Uncanny Valley

As the articles notes, the idea of the uncanny valley can explain why we like watching the characters from The Incredibles but not those from The Polar Express, nothing against Tom Hanks.   But now it seems that other primates are susceptible to the same feelings of repulsion and disgust when they see images of other monkeys that are realistic but not real (see image below).  Uncanny Monkeys

Does this mean that the uncanny valley is a biological phenomenon, not just a social or aesthetic one (though it’s probably a bit of both), and if so what is its evolutionary purpose: a disgust phenomenon to help primates avoid disease, the manifestation of an innate fear of death, or maybe (and this is the most provocative possibility) a perceived threat to human or monkey identity?  I wonder what the monkeys’ reaction would be to too-realistic images of humans; would they become agitated and ‘freak out’ as they do when they see the images of their own species? I know that I, even as a human, am repulsed and most terrified by the realistic monkey faces (the center panels) in the image above.  The results of this experiment add yet another “uncanny” chapter to the possibilities in theorizing and forming new human-animal connections.  Maybe we can even begin to theorize ideas of the post-human as the post-primate?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2009 12:21 am

    Interesting questions, Steven. What is your definition of “identity,” in terms of a simulacrum being a threat? Bodily/biological or aesthetic/social as well? It seems difficult to parse.

    Your “nothing against Tom Hanks” called to mind a NYT article from last summer when Hanks was ranked by the Davie-Brown index as the “most trusted” celebrity in America. He’s conceived as a Hollywood ‘everyman,’ lacking scandal and having a strong family ethos. Just drawing attention to the social lens that informs our responses to “realistic” celebrity images and to various corporations’ ability to exploit that lens.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/22/business/media/22celeb.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davie-Brown_Index_(DBI)

  2. October 30, 2009 6:41 pm

    What an interesting post! I also wonder about the circumstances under which almost-real images become repulsive: the fembot we saw in class, the realistic monkey face in the center panel, and movies like The Polar Express all seem to inspire resistance, but paintings–no matter how realistic–don’t seem to provoke the same reaction. Is it something about three-dimensional depictions — that the fembot could come to life, or that CGI-Tom Hanks could step out off the screen?

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