The lazy ape

Rather than language, tool use, or culture, is it our gift for laziness that makes us human?

4th July 2018
The lazy ape © Getty Images

Are we humans the laziest animals on Earth? It can be easy to think so. Endowed with the most powerful brains in the animal kingdom, we’ve put them to use making cars, computers, robot vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, automatic money sorters, and audiobooks – every manner of device and system to minimise effort. Only the human has harnessed combustion that it might spare us the labour of walking. Only the human has erected supply chains so that fresh meat may be politely purchased from a nearby Waitrose rather than tracked and killed over a long hunt. We are masters of offloading work to machines.

If this is laziness, then laziness is a hallmark of our species. More than tools, language or culture, we are marked by the complex accessories that we build to do our work for us, both physical and mental. There are many tool-using animals, from chimps to cockatoos. A whole host of animals communicate using vocalisations that we could describe as language. A few animals build cultures by handing information down the generations. But only humans build systems to relieve them of those tasks. Artificial intelligence is simply the next stage in a long history of automation that’s taken us from horses to steam to silicon and beyond.

Lazy by nature

We humans can be quite judgmental about our lazy peers, but laziness is among the most valuable adaptations for successful life. And it’s not just a human trait. In the animal kingdom, laziness is a necessity. Any animal – indeed, any organism – has to maintain a balance of energy in and energy out. If an animal profligately wastes energy by, say, moving around or working hard, and does not compensate for this with plenty of eating, then that animal will not survive for long. Laziness tells an animal how to manage this: if you do not absolutely need to do something, don’t. This lazy impulse is just one of many impulses that propel an animal’s life – so it does not always win out, and animals do frequently prance and play and preen – but the drive to conserve precious energy is always there.

Whenever we yoke an ox to a plough, or set an algorithm investing, we are, in a sense, achieving new heights in this common drive to laziness. More than just waiting to plough until we need to and then only ploughing what we need, we’ve arranged things so that we do not have to do the ploughing (at least not the hard part of it), but still get to do the eating. Our chimpanzee relatives are some of the smartest non-humans on the planet, but they don’t come close to that kind of clever facilitation of doing nothing. In general, clever animals seem to be able to spend more of their time on laziness, and chimpanzees are no exception – they nap, socialise and play in a way that a mouse, constantly in desperate straits to stay alive, could only dream of. Despite this, though, chimpanzees still…

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