Making Daisy Chains with Gorillas: the difficulties of field studies in primatology


I recently read a journal article by Amanda Rees (University of York) called “Anthropomorphism, Anthropocentrism and Anecdote:  Primatologists on Primatology”, which appeared in the journal Science, Technology and Human Values in 2001 (Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 227-247).  While the study is now over ten years old, it introduced some of the difficulties faced by primatologists when they wrote up their field research, and the difficulties surrounding being called a primatologist in the first place.  Rees conducted interviews with primatologists who researched in the field (rather than in captive situations).  One researcher recounted a colleague’s reaction to his decision to focus on primates as study subjects:

“Oh God, [he’s] lost it; he’s off to make daisy chains with gorillas!” (p. 231)

Such was the influence of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, who were seen as “bunny huggers” or too close to their subjects, while there was no doubt of their significant contributions to the field.  Many of the primatologists that Rees interviewed wanted to distance themselves from that image of a primatologist, as it seemed to be associated with distorting anthropomorphism rather than “hard”, rigorous and clinical science.  In fact, a significant number of researchers went to lengths to explain that their subject of study was really irrelevant, because they were testing general principles in the field (and so any animal would do); thus they had no bond or special relationship with the primates they studied. (p. 231)  Due to the close proximity of alloprimates to humans, primatologists remained on guard against anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, since the field of behavioural primatology has been accused of exhibiting both.  At the same time, interviewees stressed that they found primates particularly fascinating due to their complex sociality.  This discussion began, however, to reveal a tension felt by most primatologists interviewed by Rees:

“A distinct line was drawn between what primatologists could see primates doing and what they could write about what they saw primates doing.” (p. 228)

Rees delved into this further during her interviews.  There appeared to be a gap between what researchers could intuit about the capacities of primates they studied through hours of direct observation and what they could scientifically prove.  (p. 238)  So a researcher’s write up for a scientific journal such as Animal Behaviour would not include, for instance, a word such as “consoling” or any anecdotal evidence, but instead would contain long, clinical descriptions and leave out behaviours that could not be evidenced in purely quantitative terms.  This meant that some primatologists would resort to popular writing in order to have a forum within which to explain and describe those behaviours that could not be quantified or easily categorised in scientific studies but that were still clearly apparent (there to be observed). (p. 239)  Rees concludes her article with a final discussion regarding the tension that is got round in popular writing:

“This tension is partially resolved for some primatological researchers through the production of popular, sometimes anecdotal accounts of primatological research.  In these accounts, they seem to feel more freedom to skirt closer to anthropomorphic and anthropocentric arguments, to use primate models to discuss human behavior, and to wonder explicitly about the nature of the primate mind.”  (p. 245)

I introduce this article to begin to locate the field study writings of Jane Goodall, Shirley Strum and Frans de Waal – it will be interesting to review their journal publications as well as their popular writing to see the difference.  There may well be less difference now than there was in 2001, since terms that once were seen as the domain of the human alone may be allowed legitimate use in reference to alloprimates. One recent study may prove this point, as it asserts that individuals within certain primate species can be considered to have personalities, and the researchers who conducted the study do not refer to anecdote.  Weiss, Inoue-Murayama, King, Adams and Matsuzawa in their 2012 journal article (Animal Behaviour 83, pp. 1355-65), titled “All too human?  Chimpanzee and orang-utan personalities are not anthropomorphic projectons”, explain how they reached their conclusions and what conclusions they reached, based on data analyses:

“We developed two forms of data reduction analysis to determine whether these dimensions [of personality similar to humans] can best be explained by the inherent tendencies of the animals (e.g. orang-utans that are curious are playful) or anthropomorphic projectons of raters (e.g. believing that orang-utans that are curious should be playful . . . These analyses confirmed that personality similarities between humans and great apes are best explained by genetic and phylogenetic affinity and not by anthropomorphic artefact.”  (p. 1355)

Such a careful and seemingly methodologically-sound study can serve to legitimate anecdotal evidence of personality in some alloprimates; both quantitative and qualitative methods are needed.  Future blog posts will consider how Goodall, Strum and de Waal managed the tension introduced and explored by Rees.

Featured Charity: International Primate Protection League


The International Primate Protection League (IPPL) has been instrumental in rescuing primates since 1973, when Dr. Shirley McGreal (at the time a resident of Thailand) became concerned about the welfare of animals that were being exploited and kept in captivity.  For many years the IPPL has successfully exposed experiments on primates in the U.S. and in other countries, and has intervened in the illegal pet trade in numerous countries.  The IPPL gibbon sanctuary was established in South Carolina in 1977.   Since its inception, the charity has gained international recognition for its work in primate welfare – Jane Goodall has given her endorsement on the IPPL website.  Read about this important and active organization at: 

The IPPL also has a Facebook  page: 

A meeting with Catherine Hill and the human dimensions of primate conservation

Reblogging this excellent interview with Catherine Hill, about human-wildlife interactions and conservation – please read!

Máster en Primatología

catherine hillBy Rocío Cano @RocisGaia APE Conservation and Welfare Board Member

Whenever we speak about primate conservation or a conservation project is proposed there is a fundamental part that we often forget: the human dimensions of conservation. This dimension is formed by the local communities that live in the target area, many times in close contact with wildlife. People’s knowledge, values and beliefs should be taken into account and will give a different approach to any conservation project. In order to go more in depth into this topic we had an interview with Catherine Hill, researcher and professor in Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University. Her research focuses on people-wildlife interactions as well as in the human dimensions of conservation. She currently has PhD students carrying out research into people-animal interactions, ethnoecology, and human-wildlife conflict in Uganda, Colombia, Kenya and Guinea Bisseau.

What motivated you to focus your research in the human…

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Does the chimpanzee deceive, does the dog show remorse?

In a previous blog post, I introduced Pamela Asquith and her journal article, “Of Bonds and Boundaries:  the modern role of anthropomorphism in primate studies” (2011)  Asquith first considers the importance of language in primate studies, the terminology used to describe alloprimates (nonhuman primates) – “anthropomorphism is ultimately about our use of words and what they can and cannot tell us about animals” (p. 239)  Researchers such as MacKinnon in the 1970s, describing orang-utans committing “rape”, and others using terms like “murder” and “monogamy” in relation to certain alloprimates seemed to be attempting to naturalise human behaviour, asserting continuity (shared basic natures). 

Asquith then shifts her focus in the article to long-term primate field studies, considering the bonds that researchers develop with their study subjects and how such bonds can lead to legitimate insights based on familiarity and communication between researcher and alloprimate, rather than conclusions being distorted by anthropomorphism.  Asquith acknowledges the value of anecdotes, as they capture nuances and context, and the animals as “actors”, which indeed they are. (p.241)  She makes the following key point:

“Primatologists who have gotten to know their animal subjects over many years can predict behavior in some situations, as much as anyone can predict another’s behavior, and can respond appropriately in ‘‘baboon’’ or ‘‘gorilla’’ terms to incidents in which the animals have involved them. Other primate species’ abilities to learn, invent, have a social memory and strategize should not need to be defended just because humans also do them. At the same time, in providing us with such a full picture of their lives, we have enough of a context to understand the concepts in ‘‘baboon terms,’’ for instance, without fear of naıve anthropomorphism.” (pp. 241-2)

De Waal’s PAM theory can be referenced here, and could further strengthen the primatologist’s position, in being able to understand closely related social animals’ behaviours and mental states.  In my previous blog post, I introduced de Waal’s theory:

“The theory posits the following:  if a subject and object are very similar, it is easier for the subject’s perception to activate motor and autonomic responses that match the object’s.  He goes on to explain:

‘this activation allows the subject to get ‘under the skin’ of the object, sharing its feelings and needs, which embodiment in turn fosters sympathy, compassion and helping… This is not to say that higher cognitive levels of empathy are irrelevant, but they are built on top of this firm, hardwired basis without which we would be at a loss about what moves others.’ (p. 37, 39-40)”

Some researchers in the field of psychology, as noted in previous blogs, appear to want to separate humans from other animals in terms of a difference of kind rather than degree, despite evidence that piles up to support the latter.  Clive Wynne (2007), while not as extreme as Guldberg, argues against anthropomorphism, characterised as follows:

“What the true anthropomorphisms share is a belief that the imaginative projection of one’s mentalistic self into the life of a member of another species can lead to the production of hypotheses which may prompt the production of useful objective data.” (p. 132)

Of course he has a point – the age old question of how much we can know another being because we can only see through a particular human mentalistic lens and such projection is not an “objective” scientific undertaking.  But Wynne argues against de Waal and Bekoff, among others, who to me provide strong arguments (with evidence) for empathy and understanding (etc).  And how does one inhabit a purely objective position anyway, if we take into account the inevitable biases within and cultures of different science fields (and individual biases)?  Surely psychologists must imagine themselves into the mental lives of their human patients, many of whom have vastly different mental lives to their own.  Wynne goes on to use a canine example of what he considers to be the problem with anthropomorphism – a dog seems to show “remorse” after breaking an object in the house.  But Wynne argues that we cannot know that the dog’s reaction is actual remorse or Pavlovian conditioning (resulting from previous punishment for similar behaviour), (p. 133)   This is a pared down version of what he presents, so please do read his article for more detail.

Counters to Wynne’s position can be found, in Asquith as presented and beyond, as evidenced in some of my previous blog posts on this subject.  If you watch Laurel Braitman’s informative TED talk, you will hear her measured response to such positions – we are all individuals, and just as we may not be able to absolutely know (in some purely testable scientific manner) the mental state  or reasons for behaviours of our partners (or any other human being) we can and often do read behaviours based on our familiarity with these individuals, coming to accurate conclusions; this can be applied in the case of other animals we have observed closely over time. I would agree that we can never know even another human being’s perspective fully, due to the different genetic and environmental (familial, cultural, etc, etc) factors/experiences that have shaped each one of us; but we can imagine, empathise as much as is possible and gain insight through this “care-full” observation (it’s worth mentioning Einstein here, who made the assertion: “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.” , in Keller, 1983, p. 201).  Braitman would also counter Wynne’s behaviourist description of the dog – she has gathered evidence of mental illness in other animals and the existence of rich emotional lives that influence behaviour (her own dog used as an example); if we acknowledge the existence of rich emotional lives in individuals of certain species, we must also acknowledge our moral responsibilities when it comes to our interactions with them.  So, while there may not be a position that is purely objective,  other beings, with their own agencies and motivations, can be observed more accurately or less accurately (I would argue that greater accuracy comes from having the counterpoint of a “feeling for the organism”, as described by Keller, 1983, etc). Wynne concludes his article by stating that anthropomorphism must be resisted and particularly in the growing field of animal cognition.  His view could well reject observed behaviours that are not ultimately being described anthropomorphically, but in the individuals’ terms (despite the terminology used) – and so he would not be gaining true insight into the lives of other animals (his account would be less accurate than an account that appeared to him to be anthropomorphic).

Of course, Asquith cautions us about use of terms such as “culture”, for example, which could be conceived of in modern human terms in relation to alloprimates – as de Waal has explained, the rudiments for such things as morality and culture can be found in other primates, and so baboon culture or chimpanzee culture (etc) is of course considerably different to manifestations of culture in humans; but one can still say that culture is apparent in animals other than humans.  I’ll conclude with a quote from Asquith’s article:

“However far along the line of permissible anthropomorphism that individual researchers may place their observations, there is no doubt that through discussions of anthropomorphism we have enhanced our views toward a far more nuanced, textured and empirical understanding of alloprimate (as well as human and other animal) lives.” (p. 243)

Asquith also explains that “we need to remain vigilant” when it comes to language used in scientific studies, which is true (feminist philosophy of science reveals the importance of this!), but this does not mean abandoning words as descriptors of other animals that used to only apply to humans, if they seem to be legitimately applied (and these should not be called cases of anthropomorphism).  The next blogs dealing with this subject will look at the “anthropomorphic” language of primatologists like Jane Goodall, Shirley Strum and Frans de Waal.

Keeping Monkeys as Pets – Animal Cruelty?

I noticed over the past few days that friends of mine were “liking” photos from a Facebook page created by Shontelle Porter for her new “pet”, a very young rhesus macaque monkey.  Porter does try to defend herself against what she sees as bad press, for instance an article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle which came to some negative conclusions.  Porter states on Facebook that “anything can turn, dogs, birds, cats, horses, etc”, in response to the following comments in the article:

“’They’re super cute, Bubbles is adorable,’ said Beth Schaefer, curator of carnivores and primates at Houston Zoo, ‘But once they hit sexual maturity they start to perceive that they need to increase their social status … scratches and bites from monkeys can be very serious.’”

Many of Porter’s fans, and fans of the little monkey called Bubbles, defend the keeping of monkeys as pets, believing that Porter is giving Bubbles a wonderful life (her surrogate child).  And those who are in opposition seem to be lumped together as “haters” (although there is no doubt that some peoples’ reactions to Porter must be quite harsh and needlessly cruel).  Porter does seem to show motherly love towards Bubbles.  How could you not – the unbelievable cuteness and vulnerability that the youngster exudes (and its resemblance to a human baby) will evoke a “parental” reaction in many (it is, after all, a natural reaction).  At the same time, however, Bubbles seems to be an indulgence that provides Porter with much needed attention (are the little monkey’s best interests being considered? If so, would Porter have bought Bubbles from a breeder in the first place, to be separated from her real monkey mother at such a young age?).

Many questions arise here.  Is having a monkey as a pet comparable to having a dog, cat or bird? If people are against monkeys as pets, should they (for consistency) be against humans having any pets, or is there a fundamental difference between a dog companion and  a monkey companion?  Is it ultimately cruel to keep another primate as a pet (especially since detrimental anthropomorphising will probably occur)?  I introduce this last question to introduce a new section of the website, which will replace Ethics and Welfare (since the whole site is really dedicated to ethics and welfare) – Exploitation. This section will focus on exploitation issues relevant to primates and so will cover the following topics:

  • Experimentation on alloprimates
  • Primates in zoos
  • Primates as pets
  • Primates in their “natural” habitats (the bush meat trade, etc)

But I do want to widen the scope to consider exploitation more broadly, to include domestic animals such as dogs and cats – in this case, I would want to delve into the reasons why abuse of domestic animals (with focus mainly on companion animals) is as prevalent as it is, and what measures can be taken to prevent animal cruelty (how to change attitudes and behaviours), while also asking what cruelty means (considering in part Arluke’s Just a Dog) – this question brings us back to Bubbles, as we try to define what cruelty is in relation to alloprimates (having a monkey as a pet, and so on).  Keep an eye on the website for the upcoming changes and new content!