A good look at primates, or just good-looking?

Lucy's Legacy - Beauty and the Beasts
October 27, 2000

Why is it that female biologists studying non-human primates attract so much attention? I would wish this focus to be the result of a general interest in the behaviour, ecology and biology of our closest relatives, but I have my suspicions that it is because these women are healthy, often attractive and live alternative lives in exotic places. Carole Jahme's book does not deconstruct the fascination with female primatologists. If anything, it reinforces the myths. She argues that women make better field researchers than men; that they are more patient, detailed observers with less motivation to follow a conventional career path; that they are able to engage with their subjects with greater sympathy; and that women have social skills more honed for non-verbal perception of emotion and relationships.

Beauty and the Beasts interweaves the science of the study of monkeys and apes with the personalities who carry out this research. There is much of interest in this book for both the non-specialist and the scientist. The science covers shifts in research emphasis from the male core in primate societies to relationships between individuals, communication and intelligence, and sex and social structure.

In general, the presentation of theory and results is accurate. There are a few irritating editor-ial errors, and some concepts I disagree with, but then the discipline is not known for theoretical harmony.

Knowing personally many of the subjects (human and non-human), as well as having a vested research interest in the discipline, the portraits are often quite true and sometimes revealing. Louis Leakey's "ladies" are a large part of the book, and justly so as they have acted as an inspiration for generations of male and female primatologists. The chapters on Leakey and Jane Goodall are especially perceptive, while that on Dian Fossey sticks to the party line - Fossey as victim of circumstance and emotions. Birute Gladikas appears as a dedicated orang-utan researcher. These three women changed the face of primatology, away from dominance and testes to individual personalities, mothers and rearing strategies.

Jahme is to be commended for bringing to public awareness the scientific and personal histories of the less well-known but equally important Japanese women primatologists. There are interviews with women active in the field and laboratory, including many of the "post-Goodall" generation whose research on ecology, behaviour, cognition and conservation has contributed fundamentally to progress in the discipline, as well as with the most recent crop of women in the field.

But the question remains: are women better than men at this kind of science, or do we just look better? The history of the role of women in primatology is littered with overlooked men. Men, of course, have had millennia of attention, so it is fair enough to reply with a female-only perspective. However, the early development of the discipline was not just a battle of the sexes. There were dedicated men working on apes even as Goodall was starting her study, which she acknowledges. The Dutch zoologist, Adrian Kortland, now in his 80s, travelled the forests of Africa, watching chimpanzees wherever he could. George Schaller started the research on the mountain gorillas and was instrumental in making these apes the focus of further work. Vernon Reynolds began a field project in Uganda on chimpanzees in the early 1960s that continues to this day. One of the key theoretical perspectives on female primates was developed by Richard Wrangham.

So, should women take the credit for any paradigm shifts in the science? The answer is probably yes. With the entry of women to the field, different kinds of questions were asked, more perspectives were represented and the sheer number of field sites increased exponentially. This generation of primatologists has reaped the benefit, and unlike many sciences (think of theoretical physics), men and women have equal representation.

One of the women not presented in detail in Jahme's book is Alison Jolly, which is a pity. Jolly's book, Lucy's Legacy , is the result of 40 years of research experience. On my bookshelves is her 1972 textbook, which was one of the most important developments in primatology at the time and has remained a benchmark. Jolly, however, works with lemurs (the "poor relations" of monkeys and apes) on Madagascar - an exotic but unfrightening location, where the largest mammal in the rainforest is a sloth-like lemur. A side branch to human evolution, these primates are often overlooked by the anthropocentric view, which now incorporates apes with humans, but pays scant attention to what the lemurs tell us about sex, society and intelligence.

Indeed, Jolly has made two of the most significant contributions to paradigm shifts in primatology. She was the first to recognise the social power of females in groups, and she formulated the first statement of the social intelligence hypothesis, which argues that intelligence and mentality are consequences of social opportunities, not by-products of tool-use, bipedalism or human language. Jolly has firmly rooted at least some of our human traits in the primate lineage of the Eocene, which includes the lemurs.

Lucy's Legacy is beautifully written, elegant, poetic and artistic as well as deeply knowledgeable. It is a book of interest to general readers seeking a perspective on human evolution that focuses on biology, behaviour and the evolution of cognition and language rather than on bones, stones and hunting. Is it a "feminist" perspective? No. Its perspective is that of a biologist intrigued by the complexity of behavioural and physiological evolution in the lineages (apes, australopithecines and later hominins) preceding modern humans. There is a focus on the evolution of intelligence and language, which is to be expected, given her expertise and that these are still the traits distinguishing us from apes.

She also tackles head on the biology and physiology of the sexes and the nature of male-female relationships during human evolution. She convincingly argues that help in child-rearing is a hallmark of humanity, but where this help comes from can vary - co-wives, sisters, grandmothers, husbands and brothers - and thus she cleanly debunks a variety of theories about the evolution of monogamy. Monogamy, it seems, neither evolved as the single mode of male-female partnership, nor is it necessary. Her expertise on primates is evident and she is also careful in her application of primate behaviour to human behaviour, noting the differences and their causation, as well as the similarities.

The field of primatology was first "deconstructed" (inaccurately in my view) as a western anthropocentric discipline in 1989 by Donna Haraway in Primate Visions . Judging by Jahme's book, it may be time to re-evaluate the myth of the woman primatologist. The next generation of primatologists, male and female, and sociologists should turn to Jolly's book for inspiration. Let us hope that there will be primates for them to study, as many are being hunted or logged into extinction. Our understanding of ourselves will be greatly impoverished as a result.

Phyllis C. Lee is lecturer in biological anthropology, University of Cambridge and president, Primate Society of Great Britain.

Lucy's Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution

Author - Alison Jolly
ISBN - 0 674 00069 2
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 518

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