Friday, March 19, 2010

In Defense of Primatology

Do you think that primatology is all about cute fuzzy-wuzzy animals? Look at the above picture. That's a picture of me with a nice dollop of howler monkey feces on my head. Cute, right?

This post is in part of reaction to a blog post entitled "Why I am not a primatologist" by PalMD over at ScienceBlogs, and because I was rather offended by it, I feel I need to address some misconceptions about what primatologists do, and WHY we do it.

There's a general misunderstanding that, because we study cute, charismatic animals that share a lot of similarities with us (not surprisingly, because we ARE part of this taxonomic group), our science is somehow less valid or relevant. Or that our results and conclusions are questionable, because we must be completely swayed by our narcissistic attachment to anything cute and human-like. We are assumed to be unreasonably biased by anthropomorphic interpretations and bonds with our study animals (either generally, to the species/taxa, or to individual animals). This assumption is summed up quite well by the term "monkey huggers."

Now first, let me start out by saying, I'm probably the most cute-oriented person you will ever come across, and I'm sure that comes across in my posts. I think many primates, particularly spider monkeys, are cute and charming. I find baby animals of all kinds adorable, and am a huge fans of websites such as zooborns and LOLcats. Looking at cute pictures or videos, or interacting with cute animals (or children) are generally a great way for me to deal with stress (probably because the oxytocin response to this adorable stimuli dampens my normally high stress levels).

BUT, quite honestly, that has NOTHING to do with why I STUDY primates. If my goal was to spend time watching and cuddling something cute and furry, I could very easily stay home with my foster dog and cats (instead of leaving them, my boyfriend, and my friends to spend over a year in an isolated, swampy, mosquito-infest rainforest). Or if I wanted to turn that motivation into a career, I could spend much more time interacting with cute and furry animals if I worked at an animal shelter or as a veterinarian.

The reason I study primates is because they are a fascinating group of socially and cognitive complex animals, and because studying them (our closest relatives) can provide insight into the evolution of aspects of these traits--which can help us to understand the evolutionary pressures that shaped our own species. Since I'm interested in the evolution of social bonds and relationships, primate social structures are great systems for studying these topics.

And I haven't been a "monkey person" my whole life. My first favorite animals were cheetahs. And by age 8, I had decided I wanted to study social development and vocalizations in humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins. My interest in primates did not develop until my sophomore-junior years of college, and have a lot to do with the courses I was taking in psychology, biology, and philosophy. In particular, my interest was piqued by the fact that ethical arguments regarding the treatments of primates (as well as other animals) were governed by assumptions of what these animals were cognitively and emotionally capable of, rather than the most recent research on these topics.

Furthermore, I've already addressed the issue of anthropomorphism previously. What I find baffling is why those of us that have spent the most time reading the literature as well as actually studying primates are assumed to be unreasonably biased, yet those that criticize us for anthropomorphism are assumed to be unbiased. First, the best thing you can do is too look at the actual data that primatologists are yielding, and see if it supports their conclusions. Second, its interesting that it seems to me that those that are most strongly against anthropomorphism (or, more accurately, attributing non-human animals with cognitive and emotional capabilities that are more impressive or complex than our previous assumptions), seem to have a strong bias toward using non-human animals, including primates, in invasive medical research. While that is an ethical question that is far too complex for me to address in this post, let me just say that I think the most reasonable way of guiding our ethical guidelines should be our most informed knowledge about the cognitive and emotional abilities of the animals in question.

PalMD states:

"Since mind is a brain-dependent phenomenon, there are often anatomic correlates to our behaviors, and even to our beliefs, but since other animals do not utilize complex language, we will never know if they have "beliefs" which correlate with behavior or anatomy. We don't really understand what it means for a human to have post-traumatic stress disorder, so when we say that an elephant has it, there is no way to know if that set of behaviors is anything like our own experiences."

We can't ask them, but there are a number of very sophisticated experiments that can be used to understand "beliefs" that are being used with both non-human primates as well as infants (for example, there are many studies that use gaze length in response to "normal" and "abnormal" scenarios--individuals stare longer at results that surprise them, such as suspension of gravity). However, the contexts in which we can use such methods can be challenging, because experimental set-ups are often limited to captive studies (although there are some brilliant field studies out there as well). As for say, post-traumatic stress, I would say, if the animal exhibits similar kinds of distress behavior (for example, extreme startle response, extreme anxiety, self-directed or stereotypic behaviors, avoidance of stimuli associated with the past trauma) in conjunction with similar physiological patterns (such as elevated cortisol concentrations), then I think it would be parsimonious to conclude that the experiences are likely very similar.

Nonetheless, I do think that there are some reasonable objections to the kinds of data that we get within primatology, particularly field primatology. Behavioral data is messy, and isn't ever going to be as clear-cut as other types of data. Physiological data is challenging too, when you are measuring hormones from fecal samples instead of blood, in very uncontrolled conditions. Sample sizes tend to be small, and getting data at all is VERY labor-intensive (have you ever spent any time trying to follow a quick-moving monkey through a swamp? It's not easy). So unfortunately, to build up data, it takes a while, and usually requires collaborative effort or compiling the conclusions of many studies.

But at the same time, it's important. Studying primates allows us to investigate certain selective pressures in the environments in which they evolved. Furthermore, because so many primates are threatened, it is crucial that we study them, because just the act of conducting research allows us to monitor and protect populations, and our findings may be applicable to conservation efforts (as well as efforts in improving captive welfare and reproduction).

Finally, I also want to address that often we take advantage of the cute and charismatic aspects of our study animals, as well as their similarities and relation to us, in efforts to raise awareness and interest in conservation. The truth is that highlighting these aspects are often one of the most successful ways of generating interest in the animals and their habitat, which is crucial to conservation efforts. And if you haven't noticed, primates are severely threatened. That alone, I think, is justification enough for posting as many cute monkey pictures as I can find.


  1. You've made me want to read PalMDs post. And I had to LOL a bit at the poo on your head. Definitely have to have a high tolerance for disgust during field work, don't you ;-)

  2. Thanks for the blog post. I told Eric, from Primate Diaries, that I tend to not pick on people's blog post because just as I have the rights to say something, they too have the rights to write how the feel.

    However(here comes the good part), I do think that PalMD had really stepped outside of my sovereign treaty and perchance deserve some critiques (like the one you posted).

  3. The thing I really don't like sometimes about ScienceBlogs is that it has a community that often seems to get caught-up in stuff like this--which usually generates frustration from me, and the debate over whether I should make a comment, or just try and ignore it. I'd rather not waste me time getting embroiled in stuff like that--it's not productive, and just gets frustrating. in this case, though, it touched on misconceptions that drive me crazy, and that was something I really needed to address.

  4. Indeed primatologists get a bad rap when compared to straight-up (non-primate) animal behaviorists. In truth, some of this is legitimate criticism and some is misguided. Primatology studies in the US are implemented within a social science paradigm where students can learn about science without having to take much math, chem, physics, and stats. Often primatology students enroll in bioanthro programs precisely because of all the math/science pre-recs that are required from biology majors (I speak from experience). One consequence of this that primatological research sometimes manifests a rather hazy sense of what it means to engage in hypothesis testing versus engage in descriptive research. There is a difference between explanation and description, hazy as it sometimes may be. Both, of course, are necessary but sometimes the latter is confused with the former. At the same time, primatology has some wickedly creative thinkers and the study of wild primates--precisely because of our machinating minds and hypersociality--has led to some really novel insights that resonate throughout other disciplines (studies of wary cooperators, infanticide, machiavellian tactics, and sociality-as-driver-of-encephalization, etc.). Most disciplines that are united by a taxon (e.g., ornithology, entomology, and primatology) will always be viewed as the step child of disciplines united by theory. Whether primatologists can step away from this view depends on how much we can articulate with theory versus taxon-based description in my mind.

    If I could do it all over again, I'd major in math, evolutionary biology, and computer programming. And I'd study border collies, which would serve as a vehicle for studying and learning about the awesomeness of evolutionary theory (and the power of artificial selection). And I'd make NO apologies that I'm motivated to study border collies because they are cute. They are. And that's what would keep me going each day.

  5. Agreed. One thing you neglected to mention though is that primatology (as a field) has contributed some of the best (most consistent and longest running) long-term field biology studies in the past half century (chimps at Gombe and Mahale have been studied intensively for 50 years; while the Isle of Rhum red deer have only been studied for ~40 years). In mammals at least, primates are among the most well-understood animals with respect to their behavior, ecology, and cognition. If that doesn't justify scientific inquiry I don't know what does.

  6. Rich and beastape, thanks for your additions! Regarding Rich's comment on bioanth vs. biology as a major, I think you have a good point--it reminds me of they way many of my intro to phys anth students take my class to avoid taking a "real" science, under the assumption that it will be easier. But it fulfills the gen ed requirement for a natural science, and I think my 1/3 quarter crash course in cellular bio, genetics, and evolutionary bio ends of much tougher than they realize.

    My undergrad majors were in evolutionary bio and psych (with a history minor for no other reason than it seemed a good justification to study abroad in Scotland and take courses in medieval British history) , and I honestly think that may have been a better prep for grad school than an anthro major (both my masters and phd program are in anthro). But then, I have an advisor who did her undergrad and grad work in biology, her post-doc in psych, and now is tenured (just became official!!!) within an anthro program. I think an interdisciplinary training in all three disciplines provides the best preparation for primatology.

    As for border collies, that reminds me of a study a friend of mine is working on. She's a developmental psychologists who studies numerical cognition (her previous research has been on humans, orangs, and chimps), and she's been doing a numerical task on dogs (many of her focal subjects are shelter dogs). Thus far, it sounds like the shepherds are best at numerical cognition, and she thinks it's because selection for herding ability selects for better counting abilities.... it's pretty interesting :) I really want her to try out the task on my foster dog (soon to be my boyfriend's official dog!) who is, to the best of my estimation, half lab and half german shepherd. I suspect is cognitive abilities hail from the lab side of his ancestry, but we'll see....

  7. Great post. I am woefully ignorant about primatology, but "monkeys are cute" people can cause a bit of a problem. My objection to eric's post was that it seemed, to me, to be too anthropomorphizing, and seemed to set up an argument for non-human primate rights = human rights, an idea that i find simplistic and a bit dangerous, esp in the context of a broader interblog conversation about animal rights extremists. It was also based on a history of eric's naive post in HuffPo on animals not being useful in research (they are).

  8. PalMD, thanks for the comment--primatology can be a messy field (both figuratively and literally), but it is really exciting, and its findings can be very useful to figuring out the ethics of research on primates and other mammals. If you get a chance, check out my post (linked in the above text) on anthropomorphism. The ethics of animal research is a subject I hope to actually write a post on, because my opinions on this matter are far too complex to bring up in a comment... of course, they are complex enough that I haven't found the time and energy to devote to properly writing that post...

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