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Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships [Hardcover]

by Dario Maestripieri
2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 10, 2012 046502078X 978-0465020782 First EditionFirst Edition, First Printing
Most humans don’t realize that when they exchange emails with someone, anyone, they are actually exhibiting certain unspoken rules about dominance and hierarchy. The same rules regulate the exchange of grooming behavior in rhesus macaques or chimpanzees. Interestingly, some of the major aspects of human nature have profound commonalities with our ape ancestors: the violence of war, the intensity of love, the need to live together.

While we often assume that our behavior in everyday situations reflects our unique personalities, the choices we freely make, or the influences of our environment, we rarely consider that others behave in these situations in almost the exact the same way as we do. In Games Primates Play, primatologist Dario Maestripieri examines the curious unspoken customs that govern our behavior. These patterns and customs appear to be motivated by free will, yet they are so similar from person to person, and across species, that they reveal much more than our selected choices.

Games Primates Play uncovers our evolutionary legacy: the subtle codes that govern our behavior are the result of millions of years of evolution, predating the emergence of modern humans. To understand the rules that govern primate games and our social interactions, Maestripieri arms readers with knowledge of the scientific principles that ethologists, psychologists, economists, and other behavioral scientists have discovered in their quest to unravel the complexities of behavior. As he realizes, everything from how we write emails to how we make love is determined by the legacy of our primate roots and the conditions that existed so long ago.

An idiosyncratic and witty approach to our deep and complex origins, Games Primates Play reveals the ways in which our primate nature drives so much of our lives.

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Editorial Reviews


Publishers Weekly

“[E]ngaging…. Drawing on his own work with rhesus macaques as well as broader primate literature, Maestripieri offers solid grounding in the basics of animal behavior while discussing the evolutionary roots of complex social patterns. The behaviors he focuses on are both critical and fascinating: sexual choice; dominance relationships; the nature of altruism and selfishness; and coalition building, among others.”


“[A] fascinating survey. Using wonderful comparative studies and conversational language, Maestripieri brings us back to our primate roots so that we can better understand why we do the things we do.”
Psychology Today
“Read this if…You want to understand the parallels between all primate societies. Maestripieri illustrates that the behavior of Tony Soprano’s family mirrors that of macaque monkeys and explains how to figure out celebrity breakups by studying the mating practices of apes.”
Toronto Star
“The University of Chicago primatologist begins with a thorough, albeit unsettling, analysis of what we do when we encounter a stranger in an elevator, then guides us through the gamut of common social interactions, relating our behaviour to that of our primate brethren in the wild and in the lab. His observations on our common impulses are fascinating.”

Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Neuroscience, Stanford University, and author of A Primate’s Memoir

“At the end of the day, there is no social interaction of humans that does not bear the imprint of our being a species of animal, of primate, of ape. In this smart and witty book, one of our finest primatologists, Dario Maestripieri, gives a tour of human social behavior and its primate legacy. A fun, insightful read.”

Laura Betzig, author of Despotism and Differential Reproduction
“There’s a new maestro on the block, and he’s written a great book. When a chimp strays into a strange troop, why is he at risk of getting his testicles ripped off? Whose eyeball is a capuchin monkey most likely to poke? How would a long-tailed macaque take over Microsoft? Read Dario Maestripieri, and capisce.”


“Reasoning that social selective pressures are similar in humans and other primates—and roping in ‘rational’ models such as game theory—[Maestripieri] examines everyday situations from multiple perspectives. Whether scoping out the ‘elevator dilemma’ of sharing a confined space with strangers, the human tendency to nepotism or the ‘economics of love’, Maestripieri argues his case compellingly.” 

New Scientist
“Just how our biology drives behaviour is the subject of numerous books, but Maestripieri does a commendable job of bringing something fresh to his analysis…. Games Primates Play is an interesting, funny and engaging study of human nature. And Maestripieri’s amusing and often endearing anecdotes add colour and insight.”
Library Journal (starred review)
“This informative and provocative work is a major contribution to understanding and appreciating the nature and behavior of humankind.”
“A spirited, insightful narrative that explores the ways our interpersonal relationships resemble those of our primate cousins”


“By exploring our social lives through the lens of an evolutionary biologist, Maestripieri breaks down the most routine of social interactions into deeply embedded behaviors from our genetic forebears. Just like humans, other primates grapple with questions of dominance, reciprocation, nepotism and fidelity. He demonstrates how his own life, the lives of celebrities, and corporate success strategies all derive from a single, primal need to find our place in a group.”
Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal
“[A] gorgeous little juxtaposition of tales…. Games Primates Play is devoted to ramming home a lesson that we all seem very reluctant to learn: that much of our behavior, however steeped in technology, is entirely predictable to primatologists”
Science News

“Maestripieri, a veteran monkey investigator, builds a fascinating and occasionally disturbing case for fundamental similarities in the social shenanigans of people, apes and monkeys due to a shared evolutionary heritage…. In the end, Maestripieri’s theme is hard to deny: Monkey business is everyone’s business.”

“Maestripieri entertains the reader by juxtaposing portrayals of the social behavior of humans with that of other primates.”

The Daily Mail (UK)

“Reading [Games Primates Play] will certainly brighten up the longueurs of the working day, now that you know that the unpleasant senior partner who enjoys bullying his juniors in meetings is simply expressing the dominant nature of his inner baboon.”

About the Author

Dario Maestripieri is Professor of Comparative Human Development, Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology, and Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. He received the Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association in 2000, and a Career Development Award from the National Institute of Mental Health in 2001. He has appeared in many national and international TV and radio shows and his research has been featured in a number of newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, Pravda, LeMonde, Der Spiegel, the Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The New Scientist, American Scientist, Nature, and Science. He is the author of Macachiavellian Intelligence and editor of Primate Psychology. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First EditionFirst Edition, First Printing edition (April 10, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046502078X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465020782
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #694,045 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dario Maestripieri is a Professor of Comparative Human Development, Neurobiology, and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago, where he teaches and conducts research on biological aspects of social behavior in human and nonhuman primates. Dr. Maestripieri has a Ph.D. in Psychobiology from the University of Rome La Sapienza. He was a Visiting Scholar in the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at the University of Cambridge in 1990-1991 and a Research Associate at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University from 1992 to 1999. Dr. Maestripieri was awarded the B. Grassi Prize as the Best Young Zoologist from the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Italy in 1989, the Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association in 2000, and a Career Development Award from the National Institute of Mental Health in 2001. In 2005, he was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Maestripieri has published over 150 scientific articles and several books. Dr. Maestripieri has appeared in many national and international TV and radio shows and his research has been featured in a number of newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, Pravda, LeMonde, Der Spiegel, the Guardian, La Repubblica, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The New Scientist, American Scientist, Nature, and Science.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Could have been so much more April 22, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I bought this book after reading a positive Wall Street Journal review. By way of background, I am an economist and professional trader - I watch and participate in markets all the time. While I have taken a number of courses in anthropology (biological and cultural), sociology and psychology, I never pursued post-graduate education in any of the subjects. I'm very interested in the topics covered by the author and have read works ranging from Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis to Geertz's classic Interpretation of Cultures.

As of writing, I am the only person to give this book 2 stars. I expect I will recieve a large number of "unhelpful" votes and be pilloried for not "getting it" or being an amateur. That's fine since I hope to (altruistically, pun intended) save at least a few folks money.

First, the good. The book is well-written and communicates complex ideas in an accessible, funny and warm manner. It draws interesting parallels between human and primate behavior. It provides some real-world examples of "games" or algorithms that have been modified by humans to their current social context but are fundamentally the same as those practiced by primates.

Now, the bad. For those familiar with the topic, the core ideas presented here are neither particularly novel nor terribly exciting. In the first half of the book, the author spends far too much time describing experiments and too little interpreting the results or applying results to human behavior. This is a pity, because the career strategy section is extremely interesting and accessible. In the second half, he seems to reverse course and hypothesize at length with minimal scientific grounding (beyond references to others' works).
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bit of a mish-mash May 10, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition
This book is a combination of evolutionary psychology, primate behavior, and behavioral economics. Unfortunately, it's also a bit of a mish-mash. The author really doesn't do a good job integrating these different disciplines. It seems more like he picks one up, puts it down, picks up another, puts it down, etc. He never really ties them together that well. And if you're a fan of any of these disciplines, you may be disappointed with the rather shallow treatment he gives your favorite.

Though some of the writing is quite good, there were also spots I didn't care for. One reviewer really liked the chapter on Italian academics and nepotism. For me, it went on and on, rather like a shaggy dog story. I also found the next-to-last chapter on behavioral economics very boring, with a really leaden, extremely abstract style. Yes, I realize he's an academic, and not Malcolm Gladwell, but ...

Finally, the cover promises this book is an "undercover" investigation of human behavior. Except for his observations about elevator etiquette, there's really not much of that.

Hmm ... That all sounds awfully negative. It's really not that bad a book. There are some really interesting ideas (his thoughts on French kissing, for example) and it's much more readable than a textbook.

I guess I've just read a lot of these books (there are plenty out there). So, if you've never been exposed to this field before, you'll probably find this book (really, this field) fascinating. There are better books out there though.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is this your Minky? November 10, 2012
By jcrafts
I have read several books on primates and this is certainly a winner. Although Maestripieri does not seem draw all the same conclusions as Frans De Waal, he does back up his arguments well. Maestripieri argues his case compellingly that humans and primates share many behaviors. I highly recommended this book not only for its accurate content but also because of its easy to read style. However, I think that a reader will get more out of it if they read his earlier work, "Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World."
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Maestripieri, a Professor of comparative human development and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, argues that the inheritance by humans of behavioural patterns from distant, non-human ancestors is as real as the inheritance of structural items - that, just as we can spot the traces of a common ancestor in the structure of some relatively complex organ, so we can see behavioural patterns in human beings that reflect responses that have proved to be behaviourally useful to the common ancestry that we share with our cousins, the apes. Some more basic reactions, like the fear response, almost certainly take us further down the tree of life to even more distant ancestors.

Maestripieri obviously feels the need to prove his point: apparently some scientists argue that the very recent and dramatic development of the human brain means that 'all bets are off' - that our recently gained mental complexity means that we can ignore any possible influence of ancient behaviour patterns: human behaviour, on this analysis, will transcend, or is, at least, capable of transcending, any evolutionary influences. Maestripieri argues, at the conclusion of his book, that 'our new mental powers have not replaced the psychological and behavioural dispositions that we have inherited from our primate ancestors.'

Not being an expert in the field, I rather thought that we had crossed this bridge some time ago. Konrad Lorenz did a good job of popularising ethology, the science of animal behaviour, and I thought that Desmond Morris, in The Naked Ape, had argued compellingly for a link between primate behaviour and human behavioural traits.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic
Cause my bachelor was biology and i am an atheist,i agree most part of the book. After i read it,i still want to move to USA,haha.
Published 1 month ago by wangqixiang
2.0 out of 5 stars Wandering; no conclusions
A ramble through the author's studies of primate behavior. He draws no conclusions applicable to humanity. The apes themselves are short on charm.
Published 2 months ago by E. F. Isaacs
2.0 out of 5 stars Hesitated & regretted
I hesitated a lot to purchase this book considering the price and some of the reviews.
While I don't care if everything is absolutely scientifically sound, or if the author... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Celine Derudder
2.0 out of 5 stars Unengaging
Not very well written. I was hoping for something that tried to be relevant to the casual reader, but the author took the path of least resistance with this book and just... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Wyatt Twerp
1.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting ideas, but don't waste your money.
Maestripieri does a great job of explaining human behavior in terms of game theory and biological markets. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Adrien L. Phipps
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Hodgepodge
There's a lot to like in this book, but it does jump around quite a bit. And the insights it delivers aren't novel or, in my opinion, necessarily true. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Ellen Jackson
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating
"Games Primates Play" gives us a view of human social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. What does this mean? Read more
Published on April 19, 2012 by Dan Traficonte
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