Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Low-Calorie Monkeys and Roger Cohen’s Meaning of Life

Posted by lisagbrown on July 18, 2009

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In the July 15, 2009 New York Times, op-ed writer Roger Cohen responds to a recently published study that claims that ingesting one-third fewer calories may slow the aging process. The study draws this conclusion based on the controlled eating habits of a group of monkeys where half the monkeys have been denied one third of their regular caloric intake. 37% of the control group, fed a normal monkey diet, have died of old age, while only 13% of the underfed group have passed away.

In his article “The Meaning of Life,” Cohen introduces a new perspective to this story — one that the mainstream media hasn’t considered in its flurry over finding a potential fountain of youth. As he explains, “the issue arises of how these primates… are feeling, and whether these feelings impact their desire to live.” In this short but succinct statement, Cohen has turned the tables on the experiment and the resulting press coverage. Not only is he questioning the validity of the study’s conclusions, he is also asking his readership to consider the experiences of these monkeys as individuals. In wondering about the monkeys’ desire to live, he pointedly forces the reader to examine not just the food intake of the animals, but also their living situation, social structure and enrichment needs, as well. While other media outlets see hope for humans waistlines reflected in the photo of the monkeys, Cohen brings attention to everything in the photo around the monkeys — the sterile cages and metal mesh flooring, and the stark contrast of the brightly colored toys that seemed decidedly un-fun and untouched. Cohen seems to ask his readers whether this looks like a life worth living.

Yet Cohen goes on to dissect the expressions of the pictured monkeys, claiming that the larger simian, Owen (above, right), has a “wry smile” and the slender monkey, Canto (above, left), looks “miserable in his thinness,” and here is where I have to diverge with his line of thinking. It’s difficult to know from a single photograph the lifelong mood or feelings of an animal — or, well, of anyone for that matter. And as some of Cohen’s readers point out in the online comments section of the article, there are other photos of the monkeys in which the thin monkey looks perfectly content, and the plump monkey looks unhappy. It is a fair assumption that Cohen knew about these other photos when he wrote his article. Which begs the question: If pictures are worth 1000 words, then whose thousand words do these photos reveal? The scientists’ thousand? Cohen’s thousand? Certainly not the monkeys’ thousand.

As I read the rest of Cohen’s article, it became clear to me that Cohen was, in part, using these monkeys as a literary device; a means to get to the heart of what he really wanted to discuss — the meaning of happiness in life. He praises the merits of red wine, the pleasures of eating rich foods, and the enhancing benefits of love, all while using plump Owen’s wry smile as an example of the happiness that living lushly can produce. But there’s an uncomfortable dissonance to his point, because despite Cohen’s intentions, his idea of a life fully lived doesn’t remotely resemble the realities of Owen’s captive life — regardless of whether or not Owen has access to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

It is the prerogative of a writer to find alternate meanings in otherwise commonplace events, or to find the common threads in disparate stories in order to bring greater understanding to a theme. This is what Cohen strives to do by pairing the evocative monkey portraits with his musings on living happily. But when I first started reading Cohen’s article, I did not think that the monkeys were a literary means to an end. And for all the obvious reasons, Cohen’s article does not dissect the lives of these monkeys as deeply as I hoped he would.

On July 6, 2009, Cohen wrote an extraordinarily moving article for the New York Times about the tyranny in Iran called, “A Journalist’s ‘Actual Responsibility’.” He uses the disturbing events in Iran to define his purpose as a journalist. He explains, “In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness.”

Cohen defines “bearing witness” as a physical presence: to bear witness a journalist must actually see something with his or her own eyes, be present for the smells, sights and sounds of a story. But in my mind, and I think Cohen intended this as well, bearing witness is also the revolutionary act of seeing what others refuse to see, hearing what others refuse to hear, and documenting, for all posterity, what others refuse to document. And in this sense, physical presence is secondary to emotional and intellectual presence.

When I began to read Cohen’s article about a new fountain of youth — delivered on the backs of underfed and under-enriched monkeys — I saw that he was bearing witness to this story in a way that no one in the mainstream press had; everyone else saw their own fears of aging, but he saw a suffering that was going unnoticed. He was bearing witness to stark metal cages and sad thirty-year lifespans. He seemed to be acknowledging a truth that many members of the media ignore — monkeys (and all animals) live lives that are worth witnessing. But Cohen’s reliability as a witness fell just short of the mark when he supplanted his own meaning of life over the faces of monkeys whose lives are defined by what they have or have not eaten.

Perhaps Cohen has cracked open the door of Pandora’s box (aside from the obvious dogs and cats, mainstream media still has a difficult time acknowledging that animal well-being matters), and so, in that context, Cohen’s stance is actually somewhat brave. But those two monkeys — even the very thin one — can’t fit through a door that’s only open a sliver. They need a door that’s thrown wide open, and a witness who is focused on the meaning of their lives, not his own.

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