Why I am not a primatologist

One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the give and take, the ability of people to comment on each others' work, and the diversity of topics. The conversations that take place in the blogosphere have real value (a value which is so far under-recognized and under-utilized). Without the blogosphere, I would never be exposed to many of the things I read online, such as basic research in neuroanatomy and drug abuse, physiology, and primatology.

Interest in primatology is sort of like love of chocolate---I suspect most of us are born with it. As the Bare Naked Ladies sang, "Haven't you always wanted a monkey?" I suspect that the more an animal appeals to us, either as being similar or being cute, the more we tend to endow it with human characteristics. We are narcissistic both as individuals and as a species, and we see more value in an animal the more "human" it is.

I think anyone would be hard-pressed to say that a bonobo is not more like us than an opossum. But that doesn't mean that bonobos are little people. We are---I think rightly---more likely to respect the needs of humans than other animals, and we tend to create an informal hierarchy of which animals can be treated in which ways, often based on our perceptions of an animal's ability to perceive and understand noxious stimuli. Most of us feel comfortable swatting a mosquito just because it bothers us, but few of us would approve of killing a chimpanzee just because it looks at us funny. A high school biology student may cut paramecia into bits to see what happens and sleep well that evening, but if they were asked to do the same to an ape, they would likely balk (I hope).

These admittedly obvious and somewhat unsophisticated observations arose because of a post I read today over at the Primate Diaries. In it, Eric Michael Johnson uses a clever writing device to argue for a moral stance greater than humanism, one that explicitly places us face-to-face with non-human primates.

I agree with Eric's implicit point that our views and treatment of other animals is more complex than we sometimes realize. In fact, it is my agreement with this general tone that creates for me an impression that his entire post is flawed beyond redemption. For example:

My studies in evolutionary biology revealed that, far from privileging humans as separate from the web of life, we were intricately interwoven within it. Furthermore, the difference between any human and any chimpanzee was less than between that chimpanzee and a gorilla. We are, in fact, the third chimpanzee, a naked ape who donned fine clothing and manners as a way to mask our animal heritage. Humanism, at least in the view of many adherents, removes supernatural justifications for human uniqueness yet emphasizes the importance of "civilized man" as something separate from mere beasts.

Many (but not all) religions view human beings as unique among animals (or even separate from animals). While supernatural explanations for this uniqueness are absurd, there are plenty of non-absurd arguments of why we are not "just another ape". We are, of course, apes, but we are apes with a completely different set of abilities that makes us unique. And we are us, an observation that in itself sets apart from other animals. Finding a non-superstitious way to understand what makes us different from other animals and what this may or may not mean is tricky.

Humanism is appealing to those who eschew the supernatural. It recognizes the responsibilities of human beings to each other and our role in a natural world rather than a supernatural one. There is not any requirement to see humans as "other" than nature, but we are, in an important way, different from other animals.

That difference is very important when evaluating behaviors. Earth vertebrates share many physical, anatomic, physiologic, and behavioral characteristics, but the meaning of behaviors is much harder to evaluate than the function of a voltage-gated ion channel. Humans have systems of examining the meanings behind our behaviors; some are obvious. When I'm hungry, I go to the fridge. But even such a simple behavior in humans can have many other meanings depending on how one views food, one's body image, etc. Other animals may have similar-appearing behaviors, but that does not make these behaviors identical to their human analogues.

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.

But what really disturbs me about Eric's piece is not the lack of sophistication or naivete; I am guilty of these as well. It is the unwritten purpose behind the piece, the obvious implication: if we are animals, and animals are human, than we must grant them the same rights as we grant each other. This I find impractical and absurd.


More like this

Cool, thanks for reading. Where exactly do I say in that post that "animals are human [and] we must grant them the same rights as we grant each other"? That would indeed be an idiotic statement.

I may be wrong, but I think you've made a mistake here.

"It is the unwritten purpose behind the piece, the obvious implication: if we are animals, and animals are human, than we must grant them the same rights as we grant each other. This I find impractical and absurd."

I have read the piece and I did not get this impression. It may be that I cannot read between the lines. But in this case, I believe there is nothing between the lines. Sorry, but to me, your last paragraph is nearly conspiracy theory.

It is certainly possible that my inference was incorrect. It does read like that to me. I'm not sure how we avoid this implication based on what I read.

As was said in Palmd's writing, you did not exactly say that. Instead it was the unwritten purpose behind the piece. That is exactly the theme that popped out to me after reading your piece.

I do not express an opinion on PalMD's impression of the essay. However, repeat after me: "It can only be a conspiracy if it's against the law."

Is there any slight doubt that Exxon-Mobil and their business partners and rivals are acting to undermine effective responses to climate change, dooming countless species to extinction? Yet it's not a conspiracy. They're allowed to do that.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

One could look at it from another angle - Animals use each other for gain. Insects lay eggs in each other. The lion eats the antelope. If we are merely a point on the spectrum of the animal world, then why is it not moral to use other animals for benefit, just as they do? I wonder if the lion considers the pain and suffering of the antelope first?

I guess we'd have to run some sort of experiment and have ppl who did not read EMJ's previous posts on animal rights read this one. If they get the impression that the article points to animal rights in any way, you're right.

@Isis the Scientist: I don't mean to get into the whole animal rights debate, but correct me if I'm wrong:

"I wonder if the lion considers the pain and suffering of the antelope first?"

No, but according to the "human beings come first" stance, we're "superior" to the lion aren't we? So, maybe we should not think in the same way a lion does.

In it, Eric Michael Johnson uses a cleaver writing device

I swear you had me going after writing about cutting up a bonobo.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

I break with most of my fellow primatologists and bioanthropologists in suggesting that humans are not "just apes." The "humans are just apes" thing is part of the creationist argument, and to not go along with it causes knee jerk reactions that are very annoying to anyone who wants to actually THINK about the arguments rather than just .. fuck the goats.

However, I would like to point out that one of the very unique features of humans as opposed to other apes and primates in general, and this is not a small thing and I am not making this up, is our tendency to cause the extinction of other vertebrates by the simple act of finding every last one of them and killing them. We are the only primate that does that. We have caused the extinction of thousands of species, many prior to "advanced technologies" and "pollution." Homo erectus probably caused the extinction of a half dozen apes.

I'm writing a post about this issue, but I'll mention right here and now that there is a hierarchy, that EMJ is essentially correct, and that apes should not be used in research. Full stop. Well, they can be used in research, but with equivalent protocols that one would use for humans. Full stop.

I know, I know, they can't sign consent forms. So one has to deal with how to do this with apes differently than with humans. But I doubt very much that we can have a rational conversation about that because ... there are too many goats to fuck in this argument.

There is no doubt whatsoever that chimpanzees think symbolically. They are not all over the map with it like we are, but no serious scholar of primates disputes that.

So putting an ape in a research lab as a subject is a little like putting your five year old in a research lab as a subject, or maybe three year old (plus/minus), with respect to cognitive understanding. I oppose it without proper procedure. I have put my own three year old in a research lab more than once. It is doable. But it has to be done in an equivilant way for chimps, and I assume all the apes (or great apes).

I've got my comments on Eric's post as well, although I do think we can gauge our ethics towards animals partially on their sentient ability. As far as the antelope/lion thing goes, well, that's why I like IACUC and why I think we should kill animals in a humane manner. I definitely can't go as far as vegan/vegetarian, because, well, life is short and pigs are delicious.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

Oh, and as far as our causing extinctions, I'd say that's more a consequence of the agricultural revolution than necessarily an innate feature of the human primate.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

Oh, and as far as our causing extinctions, I'd say that's more a consequence of the agricultural revolution than necessarily an innate feature of the human primate.

I don't think that thesis stands up at all well to scrutiny. Consider the record of Western Hemisphere megafauna and any number of species in the islands of the South Pacific, to name just two groups of examples.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

I suppose it is the wildest of fantasies to suppose that Laden will provide even a shred of evidence for his assertions? Or that he can divide his quite admirable dismay with species endangerment/extinction from dispassionately assessing what that species is and is not capable of doing and how those capabilities stack up on the the scale of human behavior?

(and what the hell do goats have to do with anything?)

By El Picador (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

@Greg Laden: I believe there is a problem with this part, correct me if I'm wrong:

"is our tendency to cause the extinction of other vertebrates by the simple act of finding every last one of them and killing them"

Yes, but we were not "programmed" (bad word I know but nothing else comes to mind right now) to cause the extinction of other species in the same way a lion is "programmed" to kill for food. What I have a problem with is your use of the word "tendency". It is my impression that you're using it to suggest that we are killing these animals without even thinking.

Jim: Good point. Forget tendency. Long and indisputable history of doing so, nothing to indicate a slowdown in that behavior, and the behavior reaching back in time to the early days of our genus.

Isis: You are out of your depth.

El Picador, did you want me to provide references in my comment on a blog post? I don't see you refuting what I've said with anything other than snark. I recommend that you read around a bit, start with this very blog, see what Eric has to say. No one with even a modest familiarity with the literature on chimpanzee/ape research would spew the crap you are spewing.

You can start with the baby stuff if you want to learn something: I suggest reading the collected volume "Great Ape Societies." That will give you a grounding in research across several species, and from there you can go to more recent work.

But I have a feeling that learning is not your intent here. Is it?

So far [recitation of enemies list, Ed.] led "They don't know anything, they're just making it all up, there is not evidence to back up what they say" whinging has been moderately amusing, especially coming from someone who, I assume, does resarch on lab primates. But, in fact, the assertions Eric has made on his blog are documented, reasonable, widely understood and there is a vast literature. But that is never the point of the counter argument.

I've seen global climate denialists and creationists do a better job. Really.

You're right. You totally pwned it with the last paragraph. That's a hardcore logic exercise there.

By Isis the Scientist (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

Pal- Thank you for writing about this without bringing up ARA extremists/terrorists. You addressed those people in a separate post, and I think I made my position quite clear on that front. Putting this as it's own post facilitates engaging with our friends whose positions, while perhaps different from ours, are nevertheless something compatible with good intentions.

Given that you did this, I'd be willing to bet you are interested in engaging in people's actual positions, not just the position that their position reminds you of that you hold in visceral contempt. So I'm quite surprised how you addressed Eric in terms of telling him what his own point was. Whether or not your reading of it was understandable, given the cultural context you are placing this in, I do not think you can argue with Eric if he says you misunderstood him. I actually think Eric responded with poise and good faith, considering your treatment of him.

I see two possibilities:
A) you do not see his point and are arguing past him; that is, you specifically object to the idea that humans and other Great Apes should have the same rights and you think Eric was arguing that.
B) you see his point (which I will attempt to paraphrase as: (and ERIC please correct if I've gotten it wrong) "In working with Great Apes I have been struck by their similarities to humans. I think these similarities warrant Great Apes being treated with more consideration than they are currently generally given") and you disagree with it, and to make his position seem undesirable, you paint it as more extreme than it is.

If this is a case of A), it's ok to admit you misunderstood (and indeed, I've said *nothing* about whether other people could have made the same misunderstanding; i.e. whether Eric could have been more clear or should have known more about cultural context others might place his words in).
If this is a case of B), given what I know about your emotional reaction to associated views, I can understand how it happened. But I'm not so sure you're engaging in a dialog in true good faith.

Greg- I think you are confused as to whose blog this is.

Confidential to El Picador- "(and what the hell do goats have to do with anything?)"
It's more fun to fuck goats than to sheer sheep.

For example:
"quite admirable dismay with species endangerment/extinction"
Quite admirable?!! What kind of crack are you ON?! (and why aren't you sharing!?!) Seriously, being more concerned about environmental degradation than human beings leads to the Unibomber. Truly sick-fuck terrorist territory. I know I, for one, am dismayed and shocked at the growing tolerance of extremist earth-activist views on ScienceBlogs. Have you gotten a load of the commenters over at Casaubon's book? It's fine if the crunchy hippy dippy types want to live whacko lives and build solar powered generators for the zombie apocalypse, it's quite another if they are actively trying to bring about a zombie apocalypse. Anyone who owns a Prius, heck, anyone who gets too vocal about RECYCLING is giving aid and comfort to ELF and the unibomber. Not to mention, do we really need to go over how this plays into race and class privilege too? If it weren't for that batshitcrazy sociopath rachel carson, a few HUNDRED MILLION brown children would have lived instead of dying of malaria. But who the fuck cares about them? They're just brown people! Hardly even people at all; not NEARLY as important as Saving the Bald Eagle!!! (from a chemical- DDT- that actually THICKENs it's shell, but that's a whole other story).
/goatfuckery in your honor, El Picador. Yes, this is EXACTLY what you inspire. Congrats, there.

By sciencelizard (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

On the humans-apes thing:

Yes, we're apes. This in itself does not excuse acting like an idiot. Creobots appear to equate being an ape with acting like an idiot. (Apes are far nobler than even that.)

We're apes with some pretty special adaptations, though.

I also detest the idea of using apes in research and even get a little nervous about using Old World and New World monkeys even though I'm not opposed to research using those two clades. I agree, Greg, that they should have special and fairly strict experimental protocols.

Regarding El Picador's asking for evidence, I'm not sure what he's asking for evidence about, but I think I may be able to help:




There are others, if you plug 'chimpanzee symbolic thinking' into Google Scholar.

By Katharine (not verified) on 18 Mar 2010 #permalink

I think it is a rather extreme over-reading to claim that EMJ explicitly implied that humans and apes should be granted the same rights. That doesn't mean that his analysis couldn't lay the intellectual groundwork for such a claim, but it doesn't. I think more interestingly, his analysis lays the potential groundwork for a non-theistic moral code that goes past humanism, and I'd be interested in seeing what that adds up to, if he were to fully play it out (note, it would be largely an intellectual interest since I'm neither a humanist nor a primatologist, just curious.) It seems like there's plenty of time to go to "flawed beyond redemption" if he actually goes intellectually to the place you anticipate.

Sciencelizard, I assume you realize that the primary victims of climate change are already non-white people, mostly women and children, and that that will continue, probably into the billions. But of course, people and their environment are totally unrelated. And so sorry if I hated on your prius ;-).


It's funny to read the two titles of the posts- "humanist" is a moral position, but "primatologist" is a job title. To go along with the theme of reading between the lines, it seems like message behind this post is that studying animal behavior is useless because we'll never know the meaning of those behaviors, so people should just stick to studying "real" science like physiology. We can learn about our own heart disease by studying baboon hearts, but we can't learn about the "human mind" by studying baboon behavior. The only reason people study animal behavior anyway is because they think the animals are cute.

The cultural context that I read this in is this: Primatology is a female-dominated field and we get a lot of cheek-pinching. It's hard for people in primatology or closely-related fields like mine not to feel a little defensive when people start patting us on the head and saying, "of course you like monkeys, sweetie. They're so CUTE! Your science doesn't mean what you think it means and you are too emotional to remove yourself from your research, but I bet you look adorable in your little field outfit!"

I am familiar with this blog so I am entirely certain that this is NOT what Pal had in mind, but I've encountered the sentiment often enough that every time I see the words "cute" and "monkey" together, that's my knee-jerk reaction.

Bullshit. Primatology is not just Goodall, Fossey and Leakey. Some of the critical claims come from other than field science. From people like Rumbaugh, de Waal, Premack, Harlow, Yerkes...all men. Many other men and women have contributed data and analysis to the whole field over the decades-some appropriately limit their interpretations and some do not. That particular distinction has no gender in my analysis.

Gender lens should be considered as always but in this case it is nonsense to make this assertion.

We are not just apes, but we are also apes. If we want to understand ourselves, it's worth remembering where we came from: we're a lot more like bonobos than we are like wolves or sheep or tigers or sharks.

That doesn't tell us whether to give bonobos rights, however. I suspect that question is only partly scientific or factual. (Consider the number of people, past and present, who have looked for "scientific" reasons to deny some humans rights because of their skin color, gender, or such.)

You seem to put down human narcissism when it extends to non-human primates, and you imply that such narcissism is unfair when other orders of life are equally living if less cute and relatable. But although you eschew special treatment for apes, you advocate very special treatment for humans, because to paraphrase you, humans are different from (and dare I say superior to) other forms of life. It seems to me that the more we extend our love for life, from primates perhaps to paramecia, the less narcissistic our love becomes. Your position on the other hand only purifies narcissism, limiting it to our very special species. Sure, animals are not human. But there's more to life than humanity.

I have not been a reader of this guy's blog, and I see no implication in the cited post that animals should have legal rights comparable to those of humans. I do see a few people going off in shrieking conniptions at the mere suggestion that animals have feelings similar to ours, despite the fact that that is the most rational assumption based on all available evidence. One suspects that they too have ulterior motives for what they write.

Jane, everyone has "ulterior motives for what they right". What helps mitigate this fact is transparency. I am clearly, in my writing, in favor of animal research. I am clearly NOT arguing that animals do not have "feelings similar to ours", just that "similar" is not "same". This is not part of an argument for animal research---it is a comment on our tendency to attribute to other animals meanings that we perceive in ourselves without sufficient evidence.

The decision on how and whether to conduct animal research intersects with some of these questions. Eric's piece reads like a prologue to the argument for "equal rights" for animals, whatever that may mean. That is not inconsistent with earlier writings of his in which is falsely argues that animals are not a valid research model for human medicine.

I do not know if Eric knows that he has made this argument---he may genuinely not know it. It reads like a propaganda piece, one which would benefit from a statement of purpose to increase transparency.

Sharon- that section of my comment was labeled "confidential" only because I expect El Picador to grok my sarcasm. Maybe.

drugmonkey "Primatology is not just Goodall, Fossey and Leakey. Some of the critical claims come from other than field science. From people like Rumbaugh, de Waal, Premack, Harlow, Yerkes...all men."
Yeah, but I'm not a primatologist and... I've heard of Goodall, Fossey and Leakey, but NOT Rumbaugh, de Waal, Premack, Harlow and Yerkes.

By sciencelizard (not verified) on 18 Mar 2010 #permalink

Well, I do not see it as a propaganda piece, unless you think that the idea that elephants have feelings too is propaganda. Maybe you're really referring less to this piece than to your previous arguments with this man, in which case your article may serve well to preach to the choir but looks a little paranoid to those of us who have not been privy to prior debates.

IMO, there is such a thing as excessive anthropomorphization, but there is also such a thing as excessive refusal to anthropomorphize. If you do something to an animal that would make you unhappy if done to you, and the animal acts and looks unhappy in the opinion of humans who are familiar with that species' behavior, and brain regions that in humans are related to sadness or pain are activated, it should be reasonable to conclude that that animal is unhappy. You don't have to ascribe complex, culturally based motives to animals to acknowledge that they, like we, probably have amygdalas and similar body parts for some reason.

@PalMD- Eric has already told you that justifying equal rights was NOT his purpose. You apparently just don't believe him.

Why not just call him a liar terrorist and be done with it? It doesn't matter what 'statement of purpose' he might add if you are simply not going to believe him.

Or would you prefer it if I assume that your ulterior motives, nay, The Purpose (tm) behind your writing was to justify bashing monkey's skulls in for shits and giggles?
When you refuse to take people at their word things get very ugly very fast.

P.S. Why does @sciliz have p0rn marketing twitter followers?!

By sciencelizard (not verified) on 18 Mar 2010 #permalink

sciencelizard - I do believe that Harlow was the guy who discovered that if you take newborn monkeys away from their mothers and leave them to rot in a cold cage with not so much as a stuffed animal to cuddle up to, they grow up maladjusted. Who'da thunk. Glad we had leading male researchers around to clarify that "critical" issue.

DrugMonkey (#22): In my department at Duke ALL of the field primatology grad students (except me) were women and, overall, it is a field that is dominated by female researchers. More than 60% of the World Directory of Primatologists' members are female. This makes Zinjanthropus' perspective highly relevant. My colleagues and I would often discuss the derisive tone that other biologists had towards the field and its gender implications.

Call me sheltered, if you must, but can someone explain to me the FWDAOTI netism? It's not in the Urban Dictionary just yet. (Damn) I'm happy to add its definition after you let me in on it, though.

My colleagues and I would often discuss the derisive tone that other biologists had towards the field and its gender implications.

Okay, I'm listening. I'd be fascinated to hear your take. Me, I'm focused on certain domains of research observations and how they bear on claims of behavioral capabilities relative to humans and other species. I am relatively less knowledgeable about what each and every famous primatologist has claimed on a range of high falutin topics from the stricter academic setting to the more, shall we say, Discovery channel type setting. I am reasonably familiar with the claims being advanced by you and Greg Laden who I assume to be male in both cases.

Could you maybe distinguish the tone/flavor of the thinking of the more famous primatologists on some of the more critical issues (language, theory of mind, tools, external reference.....etc) by the sex of the primatologist for us?

Could you maybe distinguish the tone/flavor of the thinking of the more famous primatologists on some of the more critical issues (language, theory of mind, tools, external reference.....etc) by the sex of the primatologist for us?

I don't think the gender of the researcher has anything to do with the results in a given study. It does have something to do with how a field is perceived in a patriarchal culture (you have done great work pointing out male privilege so I'm sure I don't need to expand on that). As to why there are more women in primatology, people more knowledgeable than I could do a better job answering that. Primatologist Linda Fedigan had an excellent discussion of this in the journal American Anthropologist about fifteen years ago and I think her views are just as relevant now as they were then:

It has been suggested to me more than once by nonprimatologists that women study primates in order to work with cute, furry little animals. Anyone who progresses past the most elementary knowledge of prosimians, monkeys, and apes soon realizes that our primate relatives are not cute and cuddly. . . I would argue that primatology has shown itself to be very responsive to criticisms of androcentric language and interpretations and quite willing to redress the past focus on male behavior with a present focus on both sexes and on the relationship between the sexes. This is true to such an extent that primatology has sometimes been praised as an "equal opportunity" science. Such responsiveness facilitates a conducive intellectual atmosphere in which research by women can flourish.

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned Primate Visions by Donna Haraway. Women, primatology, politics... Love it or hate it, it should be required reading.

OK, after reading this and the Primate Diaries thread I am now determined to finally get around to reading:

What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes by Jonathan Marks.

Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human by Jeremy Taylor.

All right-thinking people are opposed to genetic determinism. Except when it comes to emphasizing human-chimp kinship and similarity.

@TGAP Dad Urban dictionary rejected my definition!
Given their standards (or lack thereof) I'm pretty offended.
Anyway: Fucking with dumb asses on the internet.

Urban dictionary rejected my definition!

why would they do that?

By El Picador (not verified) on 18 Mar 2010 #permalink

Hey, if you're really listening, I'd be happy to talk, since I actually am a woman in the field we're talking about. But it seems like you'd rather just bare your canines at Eric about why your science is better than his science.

The fact of the matter is that there are more women in primatology, but the conversation is still dominated by men. You can list off a bunch of famous male primatologists, but the majority of the people working in the field today are non-famous women. I am working on a project with gibbon genetics and had my project called "girly" and "fun." I got a comment on my student evaluations last semester about how I'm a "typical primatologist- small, sweet, and pretty."

Like Eric said, the gender of the researcher doesn't matter, and like you said, both men and women are capable of both good and bad science. My comment was about how primatology is framed in this post as something that everyone likes because the monkeys are so damned cute, and how that impression pisses me off and is something I have to encounter every day as a female paleoprimatologist.

@37 Becca: Thanks!

El Picador- AhHA! I have figured you out. You are secretly a sockpuppet of the urban dictionary editors aren't you?!

No, seriously. Why are there editors for that UD and why would they reject a definition?

By El Picador (not verified) on 19 Mar 2010 #permalink

No, seriously. Why are there editors for that UD and why would they reject a definition?


Why not just call him a liar terrorist and be done with it? It doesn't matter what 'statement of purpose' he might add if you are simply not going to believe him.

Ok, so he's a liar terrorist. Or gives lying pseudo-intellectual cover to the terrorists. Or, ok, ok, is a dumbass naif who thinks things about halfway through and *thereby* gives cover to the lying terrorists and their weak minded sympathizers.

Who gives a flying frisbee?

What does that have to do with assessing the quality of the assertions that are being made without a shred of evidence? The closest thing we have so far is Laden asserting on his piece that he's looked into the eyes of some wild chimps protecting their offspring from hazards and deduced there is "something in there" (or however he put it). He doesn't mention if he's looked into the eyes of that quail or pheasant or whatever bird goes through an elaborate broken-wing fakery to lure predators away from the young, I notice.

Meh - if I should ever have the opportunity to look into your eyes, I shall refrain from unscientifically deducing that there is "something in there." How do you know that humans other than yourself have meaningful emotional states - because they self-report such in language that you understand (whereas Koko the gorilla only does so in ASL)? There are plenty of sociopaths out there who have learned to verbally claim socially appropriate feelings that they do not in fact experience. If I have no reason to suspect that Koko or Washoe has meaningful emotions, I see no reason to believe that you do either.

I find this article, and many of the comments, quite bizarre. PalMD is attacking a post by EMJ for something that is not said in that post, namely that

if we are animals, and animals are human, than we must grant them the same rights as we grant each other

I read EMJ's article, and it just does not say that. Maybe PalMD knows from EMJ's past writings that he believes that, but if you are making the claim that

his entire post is flawed beyond redemption.

shouldn't that be based on what is actually in the post? It's not a flaw of his post that he believes something questionable.

By Daryl McCullough (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

This post is best seen in a broader context of eric's previous posts about animals in research, current events regarding ARA terrorism, and a larger interblog discussion on these issues.


I understand that. In that case, the point is that EMJ's beliefs about primates are "flawed beyond redemption" not that the post is.

Here's an analogous case: Roger Penrose wrote a book, The Emperor's New Mind that claims that a computer program can never be as intelligent as a human being (in other words, AI is impossible). In the book, he gave a pretty good presentation of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. Then he argues that Godel's theorem implies his conclusion about the impossibility of AI. I personally found this latter argument completely without merit. However, I would not say that his discussion of Godel's theorem was flawed beyond redemption, just because it was written in the context of a ridiculous argument about the impossibility of AI. The flaw is not in his chapter explain Godel's theorem, it's the conclusions he draws from this that are flawed.

EMJ's post may have been written in the context of a flawed argument, but that doesn't make the post flawed.

By Daryl McCullough (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

So you are choosing one hyperbolic sentence as the complete meaning of the post? And conflating it to mean that EMJs views on primates are beyond redemption?

EMJ is, AFAIK, a very competent primatologist. My problem is not with his competence as a primatologist.

My mother raised a Stump tail Macque, Macaca arctoides, from an infant to become a full grown male.
I had years to observe that animal and reach a few conclusions.
1.It is wrong to keep them as pets.
2. That there is not much difference between this primate and a typical Jr.High School boy.
3.And it tossed around a lot of feces like some of the responders to this blog.
Humans are much more like their relatives than many people are willing to admit to themselves.
I have my own theory as to why women primatologists out number their male counterparts. I think our near relatives tug on the more nurturing nature of women.

By Larry Waybright (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

PalMD wrote:

So you are choosing one hyperbolic sentence as the complete meaning of the post? And conflating it to mean that EMJs views on primates are beyond redemption?

No and no. I'm not making any judgment at all about EMJs views. I'm saying that even if I grant that there are flaws beyond redemption in the "broader context of eric's previous posts about animals in research", it doesn't follow that the particular post is flawed beyond redemption.

By Daryl McCullough (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

it doesn't follow that the particular post is flawed beyond redemption.

I'm finally seeing what Comrade PhysioProf means about these high school debate champeen douches. Try to see the forest instead of one tree, there, other-brother.

By El Picador (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

"I have my own theory as to why women primatologists out number their male counterparts. I think our near relatives tug on the more nurturing nature of women." - Larry Waybright @52


I think you should read some of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's work (particularly The Woman Who Never Evolved) before making any sweeping statements about the "nurturing nature of women". Turns out that even female primatologists knew this was complete and utter bunk way back in the 80s.

Larry, it could also be more complicated than simply that women want to study cuddly things. Perhaps it has to do with strong female role models in the field that girls want to emulate. Perhaps it has to do with the trail blazed by those role models, making it easier for up-and-coming scientists to enter those fields. Perhaps it has to do with mentorship, and the subtle steering (potentially unconscious) of women toward fields where women have had success.

Changing the hearts and minds of scientists, professors, researchers, mentors, and the public may in some sense create a path of less resistance. Finding a field in which a women can do science in a not-openly-hostile environment used to be a much rarer thing than, thankfully, it is now.

It's a mistake to dismiss these important factors in why women may choose a field that is already woman-friendly.

In the interest of disclosure, I am, myself, a lady-ish person.