Diamonds are forever?

Economics is one of the hardest human sciences for an ape to master. Dr Whipsnade once showed me a diamond he had bought as an investment – he said it would probably end up on the ring finger of a princess. Although it was very pretty and quite dazzling when held up to the light, I have to admit that the novelty wore off after a minute or two. I couldn’t understand why high-ranking human females would be so keen to acquire a trinket like that and show it off on their finger. You can see much prettier patterns by looking through a children’s kaleidoscope.

Apparently it’s all to do with economics. The high-quality diamond is rare, which makes it very valuable, which means that you can exchange it for vast quantities of goods. Dr Whispnade estimated that the diamond he showed me could buy a million bananas, which is a lot of bananas. His explanation seemed satisfactory at the time, but on further reflection I began to have my doubts. It’s all very well saying that a diamond could be exchanged for a lot of bananas, but has anyone actually done so? Is there a documented case of such a trade? After an exhaustive search, I could find no such example, which led to me suspect that deeper forces are at work.

My belief is that women who are given diamonds have no intention of exchanging them for bananas – or anything else for that matter. Their wish is to display them as status symbols and otherwise keep them safely locked away. It is very important to the woman that everyone knows that the diamond was a gift from her mate – buying your own gem is apparently cheating. So what the diamond signifies is the opportunity cost that the male has been willing to accept in order to please the female. Its value is the bananas that the male has forsaken, rather than the bananas that the female could acquire.

Using a diamond in this way may be a well-established human convention, but it seems rather shallow to an ape. It may, in fact, indicate a rich husband rather than a particularly devoted one. Is the man who buys a diamond for his mate more likely to protect her from a crazed baboon or pick the nits from her fur? My suspicion is that the reverse is true – i.e. he hopes that the gift of the gem will absolve him of any obligation to provide her with dangerous or time-consuming services. But if this is so, how many women realise that their diamond is actually a compensatory down-payment for an inattentive husband? Misunderstandings such as this may explain why so many human partnerships end in acrimony and divorce.

From a gorilla’s perspective, the human male should stop fobbing off his females with sparkling stones and adopt more practical methods of showing devotion. The first activity I would suggest is petting. Although most women lack sufficient body hair to be given a good stroking, a foot massage may be an adequate substitute. If a man can regularly press a woman’s feet without getting bored, it probably means he will be a good mate to her. The other activity I would strongly recommend is killing a dangerous beast on her behalf. All primate females have a deep psychological need to be protected by their mate, and this element of courtship is an essential component of many romantic movies. Ideally, the creature killed would be a crocodile (see Crocodile Dundee), but for the less courageous man a big, hairy spider may be an acceptable substitute (see Annie Hall).

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