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.
"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.