The Infanticide Controversy: Primatology and the Art of Field Science

Reactions to 'evil' primate behaviour cast light on the politicisation of science, says Phyllis C. Lee

April 8, 2010

Ask any UK behavioural biologist about "the infanticide controversy" and they will most likely reply: "What controversy?" As arguments over stem-cell research and climate change demonstrate, science can be highly politicised, especially in the US, and the behaviour exhibited by our close primate relations that is simultaneously adaptive and lethal can be very contentious.

Of course, if the "prey" were another species and the predators were simply hungry, lethal attacks on infants by adult males would merely be eating and adaptive without challenge; by contrast, if a male kills his competitors' offspring, these are babies from his own group, and if the species concerned is "closely related" to humans, then explaining infant killing as a potentially adaptive strategy is enough to embed politics into the science.

Amanda Rees has woven together the sociology of field studies of non-human primates over the past century with one historical controversy that illustrates some of the dilemmas of doing science in a politicised world.

Zoologists reading the sociology of science tend to turn first to the biography to see if they are cited. Declaring an interest here, I was interviewed as part of this research some years ago, and was also at the Gombe National Park, site of Jane Goodall's research in Tanzania, when the first observations of lethal violence between chimpanzees were being written. This caused a paradigm shift from our view of chimpanzees as benign tool users to that of so-called "demonic males". Sarah Hardy's 1974 observations that male langurs - handsome, long-tailed, gregarious monkeys that are sacred to Indians - routinely killed small infants when they deposed incumbent males and took over the leadership of troops started a political debate that rumbles on to this day.

Rees presents a detailed history of primatology, a discipline that has had a mixed history of experimentation as well as naturalistic observation and conservation. One might ask: why are primates worthy of their own subdiscipline? Primates "are us", so the 350-plus living species benefit from our interest in our own evolution. This shared evolutionary history is also what makes their behaviour potentially frightening when it raises the issue of evil as an adaptive behaviour.

Humans, however, don't need examples from monkeys to be evil; they are bad enough as it is, so why should langur infanticide ever have been of concern, especially to the scientists involved? Rees presents the controversy as the result of changes in the prevailing evolutionary paradigm (from group selection to sociobiology in the 1970s), challenges by youth to the established scientific hierarchy, and - more provocatively and in detail - how field observations are made and interpreted.

All of these are interesting, but the crux of the matter is that from thousands of hours of observations, hormone samples and genetic paternity studies, langurs are simply one of 39 primate species where males carry out infanticide as an adaptive reproductive strategy.

These recent data make the controversy at the heart of Rees' book look extraordinarily personal and dogmatic - judgemental rather than scientific. This is the central lesson from her text - how observation, interpretation, passion and belief can structure science and waste literally decades in fruitless controversy.

However, the anthropological/primate perspective rather than the zoological one underlies the perpetuation of the controversy - it is hard to imagine a 20-year debate over infanticide in fruit flies.

Rees has an excellent and detailed grasp on the science of primatology, the sociology of doing it and the personalities involved. Her book will fascinate and frustrate future generations of primatologists, who simply won't be able to understand how such a controversy could persist for so long - but will want to understand the humans behind it.

The Infanticide Controversy: Primatology and the Art of Field Science

By Amanda Rees

University of Chicago Press 304pp, £.50

ISBN 9780226707112

Published 14 December 2009

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