Barbara McClintock

While researching for my thesis, I came across the  geneticist Barbara McClintock, who discovered the transposition of genes in maize; transposition is described as “a two-part process, involving the release of a chromosomal element from its original position and its insertion into a new position”.[1]  Evelyn Fox Keller wrote a biography of McClintock’s life called A Feeling for the Organism.  McClintock’s special way of relating to her study subjects interested me, as it seemed like a perspective that could be useful for conservation efforts.  Her “feeling for the organism” relied on what we might call an “empathetic” relationship with other species; McClintock believed that “reason and experiment” were not enough to gain understanding of organisms through science, agreeing with Einstein who held that “only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding, can lead to [discovery]…the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.”[2]   McClintock went so far as to say that, “Every time I walk on grass I feel sorry because I know the grass is screaming at me”[3].  Keller explains the relationship that developed between McClintock and her study subjects:  “Over the years, a special kind of sympathetic understanding grew in McClintock, heightening her powers of discernment, until finally, the objects of her study have become the subjects of her study in their own right; they claim from her a kind of attention that most of us experience only in relation to other persons.”[4]

For McClintock, having a “feeling for the organism” required intense observation and “patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you’, the openness to ‘let it come to you’.”[5]  McClintock allowed the organisms to “possess” her in a sense.   Her careful observations, her knowledge of the tiny details of an organism’s existence, led to her ability to “be” them to some degree, and this has been cited as the reason why she saw what her contemporaries in evolutionary biology failed to see (until years after the initial discovery of transposition of genes in maize plants).  Barbara McClintock expressed a belief in the “oneness of things”, but at the same time, she was acutely aware of individual difference (“’No two plants are exactly alike…I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately.’”).[6]   Even as research in evolutionary biology “progressed” to greater heights of technological endeavor and efficiency, McClintock pushed for slowness and contemplation:  “the necessary next step seems to be the reincorporation of the naturalist’s approach—an approach that does not press nature with leading questions but dwells patiently in the variety and complexity of organisms.”[7]   Her “feeling for the organism” captures context and historicity, challenges exploitation or domination of the marginalized (in this case, the nonhuman), expresses empathy and care, acknowledges sameness and difference, and an embeddedness in nature.  This complex perspective, developing out of evolutionary ecology, has the potential to halt the degradation and exploitation that primates and other animals have suffered; it could be more successful if widely referenced, albeit more difficult to implement, than the ecosystem approach that pervades mainstream conservation efforts (see the CBD pages for descriptions and critique of this approach to conservation).

[1] Keller, 1983, p. 127

[2] Ibid, p. 201

[3] Ibid, p. 200

[4] Ibid, p. 200

[5] Ibid, p. 198

[6] Ibid, pp. 198, 204

[7] Ibid, p. 207

Otto Frankel and an Evolutionary Ethic

Otto Frankel was one of many scientists who developed Darwinian thought in the 20th century.  Frankel emphasized the importance of preserving “ecological function” and “ecological interaction in all its diversity”, but his gaze was resolutely trained on ecological interaction, which held most meaning for him in conservation efforts:  “It is the second objective that distinguishes the conservationist from the sewage treatment engineer, since the latter cares nothing for complexity and diversity and does not shed a tear for the demise of species so long as his system continues to metabolize waste.”[1]   Frankel proposed an evolutionary ethic that would reflect our “evolutionary responsibility”, allowing for “continued evolution” (not merely of the human species).[2]    As he elaborated upon the necessity of a clear ethical stance in genetics, Frankel articulated “a version of the intrinsic value argument for conservation”[3]; he explained that “an evolutionary ethic…will make it acceptable and indeed inevitable for civilized [humans] to regard the continuing existence of other species as an integral part of [their] own existence.”[4]

Frankel explains the value of other species in terms of their fundamental importance to the existence of human beings (“an essential part of [human] existence”[5]) and describes the “intrinsic” value of organisms.  His ethical perspective is grounded in evolutionary ecology (which seeks to understand individual difference and distinctions among species, celebrating such diversity and complexity).  The intrinsic value Frankel refers to involves valuing something for its characteristics, its being, rather than for what it provides human beings (non-instrumental).

Frankel did advocate “pervasive management of nature”[6] and his position is not without its problems, but he was passionate about convincing human beings to allow other species to flourish in their own distinct ways.

[1] Frankel and Soule, 1981, p. 110

[2] Frankel, 1974

[3] Soule, 1992, p. 57

[4] Frankel, 1974, p. 54

[5] Soule, 1992, p. 57

[6] Ibid, p. 56

Critics of de Waal

I just read an article in American Scientist by Joan Silk, a professor of anthropology at UCLA.  She calls into question some of de Waal’s conclusions in The Age of Empathy.  Silk highlights the fact that chimpanzees do not consistently show helping behaviour, but de Waal appears to ignore this:

“De Waal endorses the experiments in which the chimpanzees were helpful and dismisses the others as examples of “false negatives.” As the author of one of the sets of experiments in which chimpanzees failed to be helpful, I may not be entirely objective about the value of that work. However, I am convinced that if we really want to understand the nature of empathic concern and compassion in other apes, we need to figure out why chimpanzees respond helpfully in some circumstances and unhelpfully in others.”

I would respond to that with another question:  why do humans respond helpfully in some circumstances and unhelpfully in others?  Most likely the answer involves individuality (some individuals tend to be more caring than others) and complex environmental factors (most individuals have a range of ways they will react, depending on state of mind and the circumstances they find themselves in, disrupting consistency).  This does not, however, mean that empathy is absent, and what is observed in chimpanzees is merely emotional contagion.  In fact, if you just look at dictionary definitions,  empathy does not necessarily lead to action, so a person (or chimpanzee, or elephant, etc)  may feel empathy without acting on it in terms of actually trying to help:  “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (Merriam-Webster).  The Oxford English dictionary simply states that empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.  Definitions of compassion seem to include a level of action (see last paragraph below).  But empathy can then lead to compassion.

Silk goes on to say the following:

“If empathy were limited to humans, de Waal says, that would mean that it was a trait that evolved only recently. This concerns him: ‘If empathy were truly like a toupee put on our head yesterday, my greatest fear would be that it might blow off tomorrow’. . . Here de Waal misses the opportunity to explore what makes us different from other apes. . . Recently, a number of scholars have given a great deal of thought to how and why human societies have become more cooperative than the societies of other primates, but de Waal does not discuss their ideas here. That is a pity, because we need to know the answers to those questions if we want to create kinder societies.”

But Silk misses the point, I think.  De Waal does state that he thinks humans are capable of grander and more complex feats of cooperation than other apes.  (p.181)  But De  Waal believes that empathy has a long evolutionary history (he spends a lot of time building this argument) and he asserts that the empathetic side of human nature needs to be allowed to flourish (“expand the range of fellow feeling”, p.203); he states that “fostering empathy isn’t made easier by the entrenched opinion in law schools, business schools and political corridors that we are essentially competitive animals” (p. 204).  The development of an expanded empathy would result in better human to human relations, as well as better relations with non human beings.  How can there not be such continuity among organisms if evolution has occurred?  De Waal makes this point:

“evolution never produces ‘large anomalies’.  Even the neck of a giraffe is still a neck. Nature knows only variations on themes.    Trying to set human cooperation apart from the larger natural scheme including apes, monkeys, vampire bats, and cleaner fish hardly qualifies as an evolutionary approach.” (p. 182)

I have just found another book review of The Age of Empathy in the Wall Street Journal.  I think it’s a poor argument – Stark’s definitions of compassion and sympathy seem muddled (de Waal does define what he means by sympathy in the book).  Merriam-Webster defines compassion as:  “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”, and the Oxford English Dictionary includes sympathy and pity in the definition: “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”.  Chambers Dictionary states that compassion is “a feeling of sorrow or pity for the suffering of another, usually with the desire to alleviate it”.  Certainly Dr. de Waal provides numerous examples of animals (other than humans) acting in order to alleviate suffering.

Another and more balanced article from the WSJ than the one introduced above, but on de Waal’s work generally (not a book review).

Russell Mittermeier – from hot spots to primatology

Hot Spots

I came across Russell Mittermeier while researching for my thesis.  At the time, I wasn’t focussed on primates, but on the idea of biodiversity that contained them and all other organisms.  Mittermeier had taken Norman Myers hot spot approach to conservation and updated it:

Norman Myers conceived of the hotspots idea in 1988[1], two years after the pivotal National BioDiversity Forum was held in Washington; the concept has been used to identify regions to be targeted for conservation.  Myers explained that “hotspots are vital as they contain the major remnants of genetic stock for the planet as a whole”.[2]   He promoted a perspective in which biodiversity became part of one global system.  Hotspots primarily exist in tropical (Southern) regions of the world where species richness is naturally high.  It made sense, based on this global perspective, to focus conservation efforts on these areas, which numbered about 25 worldwide (recently increased to 34)[3]:  “the hotspots analysis indicates that at least one third of the overall problem could be countered through protection of hotspots covering an aggregate expanse of only a little over 2 million km2”.[4]   The “overall problem” Myers refers to is “loss” of biodiversity, in the sense of numbers of species.

Myers hotspot concept has been updated since 1988 by biologist (primatologist) Russell Mittermeier, who describes hotspots as “the environmental emergency rooms of our planet…defining urgent conservation priorities”.[5]  So, instead of triage situations of the past, we now have triage situations on a broader scale, involving different ecosystems (hotspots) that serve as “storehouses” for vast numbers of species, each ecosystem in a state of “sickness” which must be adequately diagnosed, prioritized and then treated.    Mittermeier explains that “these areas capture the uniqueness of life on Earth”.[6]  The biologist believes conservation of hotspots will save species as well as “deep lineages of evolutionary history”.[7]

I critiqued this approach, which at the time (early to mid 2000’s) was guiding conservation efforts in a fundamental way (I do need to update my knowledge, but this is a historically relevant position):

The idea of hotspots has significantly guided conservation efforts since 1988.  Marvier and Kareiva note that, “the hotspot concept has grown so popular in recent years within the larger conservation community that it now risks eclipsing all other approaches…the officers and directors of all too many foundations, nongovernmental organizations and international agencies have been seduced by the simplicity of the hotspot idea”.[1]  Despite such popularity, the notion of designating areas for conservation based on species richness has deep flaws.  Christensen identifies one of the problems with this approach:  “they do not include many rare species and major animal groups that live in less biologically rich regions (“cold spots”)”.[2]   Marvier and Kareiva also voice their concern regarding hotspots by way of example:  “preserving 1,000 species in a ‘cold spot’ like Montana, they argue, would be more important than preserving 1,000 species in a hotspot like Ecuador because in Montana 1,000 species represents a third of the total, while in Equador it represents just 5 percent”.[3]  And Kareiva considers “biodiversity” to be only one variable that should be considered in conservation decisions.  Paul Ehrlich believes that emphasis on hotspots denies focus on ecosystem processes, functions, and services.[4]

These criticisms do point to problems with the hotspot idea, which has focused conservation efforts on regions such as Guaraquecaba in Brazil and Sian Ka’an in Mexico (my two case study regions).  Areas with greater numbers of species are valued above those with fewer numbers.  It seems standard to highlight Southern regions when discussing biodiversity due to this focus.  Arthur Mol provides an apt example of this perspective when he explains that rampant economic development in “sensitive areas in developing countries” leads to biodiversity loss because this is “where most biodiversity is located”.[5]  But, Christensen, Marvier and Kareiva continue to count species and while their points are well taken, they reflect an understanding of biodiversity as species richness; Vandana Shiva’s point that biodiversity in the mainstream is synonymous with numbers of species inhabiting a particular area, holds true here (in the case of Marvier and Kareiva, area and percentages of species to be protected become paramount).  This narrow conception of biodiversity is also exemplified by Kareiva’s remark that biodiversity is only one variable to consider, since he equates biodiversity with species richness; a more complex definition of biodiversity (involving a switch to focus on biodiversification) could capture some of what Kareiva feels is presently left out.  And finally, Ehrlich’s criticism regarding the poverty of the hotspots approach seems at least partially unfounded; this becomes apparent upon closer examination of Guaraquecaba and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserves.  While regions, or more specifically ecosystems, may be designated hotspots based on high biodiversity, or species richness, management of these containing ecosystems does increasingly involve focus on processes and functions, with biodiversity gaining new definition in terms of species’ roles in the functioning of the system.  The concern of conservationists within this framework is not to maintain every species, but to ensure the stability of the system through maintenance of functional diversity and its redundancies.


Now I hope to be able to engage more fully with Russell Mittermeier’s work as a primatologist.  He is a key contributor to the recent report on primates issued by the IUCN and launched at the last Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of Parties 11.   The report, Primates in Peril:  the world’s 25 most endangered primates, 2012-2014lists the following primates as most endangered:

Table 1. The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates 2012–2014


Galagoides rondoensis, Rondo dwarf galago, Tanzania

Cercopithecus roloway, Roloway monkey, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana

Piliocolobus pennantii pennantii, Bioko red colobus Equatorial Guinea (Bioko Is.)

Piliocolobus rufomitratus, Tana River red colobus, Kenya

Gorilla beringei graueri, Grauer’s gorilla, DRC

Madagascar Microcebus berthae, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, Madagascar

Eulemur flavifrons, Sclater’s black lemur, Madagascar

Varecia rubra, Red ruffed lemur, Madagascar

Lepilemur septentrionalis, Northern sportive lemur, Madagascar

Propithecus candidus, Silky sifaka, Madagascar

Indri indri, Indri, Madagascar


Tarsius pumilus, Pygmy tarsier, Indonesia (Sulawesi)

Nycticebus javanicus, Javan slow loris, Indonesia (Java)

Nasalis concolor, Pig-tailed langur, Indonesia (Mentawai Is.)

Trachypithecus delacouri, Delacour’s langur, Vietnam

Trachypithecus poliocephalus, Golden-headed or Cat Ba langur, Vietnam

Semnopithecus vetulus nestor, Western purple-faced langur, Sri Lanka

Pygathrix cinerea, Grey-shanked douc monkey, Vietnam

Rhinopithecus avunculus, Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, Vietnam

Nomascus nasutus, Cao-Vit or Eastern black-crested gibbon, China, Vietnam


Ateles hybridus, Variegated spider monkey, Colombia, Venezuela

Ateles fusciceps fusciceps, Ecuadorian brown-headed spider monkey, Ecuador

Cebus kaapori, Ka’apor capuchin monkey, Brazil

Callicebus oenanthe, San Martín titi monkey, Peru

Alouatta guariba guariba, Northern brown howler monkey, Brazil

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, quoted by Christensen

[5] Mol, 2001, p. 72


[2] Myers, 2002, p. 52

[3] Vangelova, 2005

[4] Myers, p. 53, in O’Riordan and Stoll-Kleeman, 2002

[5] Vangelova, 2005

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

Frans de Waal and The Age of Empathy

I’m half-way through Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy.  He highlights natural tendencies towards empathy rather than self-interest, not only in primates but in other animals.  Human nature and the “nature” of other species is more complex than the “selfish” gene:

“we are group animals:  highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering but mostly peace loving.  A society that ignores these tendencies can’t be optimal… there is both a selfish and social side to our species.  But since the latter is, at least in the West, the dominant assumption, my focus will be on the former:  the role of empathy and social connectedness”.  (p.5)

This was also the focus of my thesis, to emphasise this potential (often lying dormant) in how we relate to other beings.  Economic paradigms (based on self-interest and competition)  influence and limit human interactions on many levels and can stifle our empathetic side.  This is explained well by de Waal:

“economists prefer to imagine a hypothetical world driven by market forces and rational choice rooted in self-interest.  This world does fit some members of the human race…In most experiments, however, such people are in the minority.  We obviously have a problem if assumptions are out of whack with actual human behavior.  The danger of thinking that we are nothing but calculating opportunists is that it pushes us precisely toward such behavior.”  (p. 162)

de Waal challenges the notion that selfishness is ultimately behind altruism (this is how sociobiology explains away altruism), an important point to make:

“Offering assistance to others evolved to serve self-interest, which it does if aimed at close relatives or group mates willing to return the favor. .. But this doesn’t mean that humans or animals only help each other for selfish reasons.  The reasons relevant for evolution don’t necessarily restrict the actor.  The actor follows an existing tendency, sometimes doing so even if there’s absolutely nothing to be gained.” (p. 42)

This tendency towards helping others can be seen in many other species as well.  de Waal provides examples particulary in primate species.  He also systematically builds an argument to prove that there is significant evidence of empathy expressed by primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos, but also by animals such as elephants and cetaceans.   He describes how chimpanzees show synchronization and mood transmission, a key element of empathy:

“Sometimes, a mother ape returns to a whimpering youngster who is unable to cross the gap between two trees.  The mother first swings her own tree toward the one the youngster is trapped in, and then drapes her body between both trees as a bridge.  This goes beyond mere movement coordination. It’s problem-solving.  The female is emotionally engaged (mother apes often whimper as soon as they hear their offspring doing so).”  (p. 50)

Chimpanzees and other apes can emotionally identify with others. And there is evidence that this identification occurs in a range of species (not just primates).

Frans de Waal’s Facebook Page

Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary – First Visit

Last week, to off-set the disappointment of rescheduling SA (on advice from my physio), I decided to visit a primate sanctuary relatively close to home.  The goal was to have some initial exposure to apes and monkeys and their needs in captivity (as well as their stories – how they came to be in captivity).  I also hoped to speak to the founders of the sanctuary, whose dedication to these animals sounded truly remarkable.

The Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary sits just on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales, and consists of 35 acres of land.  The countryside has the same rugged beauty I am used to seeing (and love) in Scotland.

View from the Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary
View from the Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary

Visitors may find it difficult to get to the sanctuary without a car.  I made the train journey to Neath, which appeared to be the closest town (accessible by train from Edinburgh) to my destination, and once there discovered that the buses ran infrequently so I would have to take a taxi if I wanted to get to the sanctuary at a reasonable hour.  The taxi driver (Mike) had never heard of the sanctuary even though it was only about 15 to 20 miles away (luckily I had written down the address, which I could barely pronounce, and he had GPS!).  He kept mentioning “the sleeping giant” during the journey (acoustics in the taxi were bad so I could barely hear him but I surveyed the passing scenery, a bit bewildered, for whatever might be a giant…sleeping).  About fifteen minutes into the drive, Mike started gesticulating wildly and saying over and over, “There’s the sleeping giant, it looks like it’s sleeping! See?  It’s a sleeping giant!”.  I saw the hill he was pointing at, and could (if I squinted) imagine one rock bulge as a massive head (with a face in profile) lying on a pillow, but only just barely!  I agreed and thanked him anyway.   We arrived at the sanctuary ten minutes later, and Mike was quick to point out that I had reached what he thought was the back of beyond (it certainly sounded like a strange new world –  the air was saturated in bursts with hoots and screeches that seemed so out of place).

I had booked a room in the B&B located on the grounds for a very reasonable price (I would recommend staying there).  The rooms lie just above the sanctuary gift shop and former cafe in an amazingly rustic building filled with roaming cats (I particularly fell for a little black cat who kept flitting in and out of the rooms), animal welfare posters and paintings of chimps and other animals.

Room in the Sanctuary B&B
Room in the Sanctuary B&B
Rustic breakfast room at the Sanctuary
Rustic breakfast room at the Sanctuary

I met Jan Garen when I checked in and after I had dropped my bags in my room, we had a proper chat.  Jan and her husband, Graham, are an inspiring couple.  They had inherited the farm and farmland from her parents and were already taking in horses and other farm animals (and running an education centre) when they found out that 7 chimps were to be euthanised due to closure of a nearby animal park.  After some worry over how they would cope, the couple made the necessary arrangements to take in the chimps.  Graham had been an engineer for the military so he had the knowledge to build appropriate enclosures (or he soon did) and he converted a van to a rescue ambulance for animals they would have to transport.  The sanctuary grew from there, and rescue operations have not only involved apes and monkeys but an elephant too, among other animals (see their website for details).

The Primates

I was keen to visit the chimp enclosures first and so I wandered over to them right away the next morning.  The chimps had been split into three groups in three different enclosures.  I encountered the first chimp sunning himself, while his companion must have stayed in the warmth of the heated indoor area (temperatures were close to zero degrees C that day).

Sunning Chimp
Sunning Chimp

The next enclosure was larger and contained six chimps and most of them sat or slept at the edges closest to the visitor foot paths.  Two of the chimps (at the time I didn’t know all of their names!) sat side by side and one absentmindedly groomed the other.  The one doing the grooming then decided it was time to annoy his companion, so he stuck his long leathery finger up her nose.  She slapped his finger and shifted away so that she didn’t face him, but he sidled up next to her and again inserted finger into nose.  This went on for ages until the female finally moved far enough away so that the male didn’t follow.  After watching this, we all shifted our gaze to another chimp, called Ronnie.  He would stare straight at you and then in a quick, decisive gesture, wave a hand up and down in front of his face.  He did this several times and at first it seemed a bit hostile – the more we stared doing nothing, the more insistent his gesture.  Ronnie also made this gesture with two hands in front of his chest (as if wiping something off of his body).  Some visitors repeated the gestures right back to him and that seemed to make him even more annoyed.  I returned to the gift shop to ask what this all meant.  Ronnie wanted to interact with passersby so he was signing for people to either take off their hats or glasses (the gesture across his face) or to take off their clothes!   I returned to Ronnie and proceeded to take off my jacket once he made the gesture – he seemed quite pleased at this (although I put it back on again immediately!).  I couldn’t help but notice a little chimp curled up in a blanket right next to Ronnie.  Her name is Nakima and she spent 29 years of her life with a woman who dressed her up in clothes.  When the woman died, the sanctuary took in Nakima as no one else could, and she and Ronnie bonded.  She still prefers to wear something so the staff oblige and give her blankets and other items.  I spent the following day learning more about them all first hand and about the other primates living at the sanctuary.

Nakima in her blanket
Nakima in her blanket

The first night that I had arrived, I peered out of my window (which had a good view of Nakima’s enclosure) when it must have been near feeding time.  I could just make out the hefty dark shape of a male chimp watching and waiting on the closest side of the enclosure and next to him, a much smaller form draped in purple; they looked like squat little people.  Every now and then they let out eerie screeches as they stood there.  It was a surreal scene.


This website will provide information on primate conservation and welfare, including a comprehensive list of charities (particularly in the UK) that champion primate welfare so that visitors can support them.  The pages will be populated in the coming months with up to date information and links.  Blog entries will (hopefully!) appear regularly.