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.


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