Anthropology and Human Nature

Primatology, Anthropology, Genetics

Anthropology is primatology, for humans are primates. Studying our non-human primate relatives–the fascinating field of primatology–is interesting in its own right, but also provides clues about human behavior and human origins. Anthropological primatology emphasizes primate flexibility and diversity. Primatologists have discovered a diverse repertoire of species, group, and individual behavior, varying across and within primate groups. There is no single model for primate behavior nor a single group which can stand in as definitively representing the most recent common ancestor of contemporary bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans.

On 19 December 2011, New York Times writer Nicholas Wade published an article titled Genes Play Major Role in Primate Social Behavior. Based on a study called Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates, Wade’s representation contradicts anthropologically informed primatology. This is no surprise from Wade, who has a long history of trumpeting genetics and essentializing race–Wade has been openly hostile to anthropology and consistently misrepresents the discipline (see Science in Anthropology).

This posts highlights a selection of anthropological primatology, which in recent years has endeavored to become ethnoprimatology and multispecies, stressing ongoing interactions across human and non-human primate worlds. I will also track any anthropological responses to the Wade article or Stepwise evolution study. I have not yet seen any full-fledged critiques, but please contact me if you have any updates. The one conversation I saw about this was on Facebook, initiated by Jonathan Marks and with the participation of (among others) anthropologists Roger Lancaster, Katherine MacKinnon, and Daniel Segal. Razib Khan at Gene Expression is skeptical of the genetics headline: “The overall point of the paper is that history and contingency matter a great deal, which to me implies that we should be cautious about making specific judgments of positions along the phylogenetic tree derived from what we gather from the whole” (The arc of primate social evolution).

Anthropology Blogs

Humans And Other Animals: A Voice From Anthropology
The species-level trap is an easy lure. You’ve heard the claims, maybe, about chimpanzees and bonobos? Chimpanzees are the male-violent, make-war apes, whereas their close cousins the bonobos are female-empowered and sexy-pacific. Don’t believe it, at least not in this overly-simple form. Gentle chimpanzees and feisty bonobos exist, as do apes who one day are kind and the next cruel, shaped (as are we humans) by some combination of how they were raised, their day-to-day social encounters and their genetics.

Barbara J. King, NPR 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, 15 September 2011

Primatology as Anthropology
Highlighting the comparative evolutionary patterns of primate behavior, we stand to gain an enlightened sense of appreciation for the human condition. We may become stronger as a discipline for engaging each other in such comparisons. There are certainly tremendous differences between humans and our non-human primate ancestors, but placing greater significance on primate complexity and evolutionary relevance promotes the comparative drive that has historically stimulated anthropological thought.

Nicolas Ellwanger, anthropologies, 1 August 2011

Anthropology Journals

Naturalcultural Encounters in Bali: Monkeys, Temples, Tourists, and Ethnoprimatology, Agustín Fuentes
Examining the interface between humans and other primates can illuminate how interspecies relationships create and maintain complex social and ecological spaces. Humans and macaque monkeys share ecologies that include cultural, historical, and physiological dimensions. In this essay, I examine such ecologies while undertaking an ethnoprimatological project in Bali, Indonesia. This multispecies ethnography of humans and macaques demonstrates that human perceptions and land use intertwine with macaque social behavior and pathogen physiologies to affect local ecologies and economies for both species. In these contact zones where any clear boundary separating nature/culture is difficult to discern, I use the concept of “niche construction” and an ethnoprimatological lens to explore and understand these relationships. This article also serves as an invitation to move an ethnoprimatological approach away from the periphery and into a broader primatological and anthropological engagement with naturalcultural relations.

Cultural Anthropology. November 2010.

Ethnoprimatology: Toward Reconciliation of Biological and Cultural Anthropology, Erin P. Riley
One of the hallmarks of the discipline of anthropology is its holistic approach to the study of what it means to be human. A perennial challenge to the discipline, however, is the question of whether biological and cultural anthropology can truly coexist given their traditionally disparate epistemologies and methodologies. In this paper, I argue that the emerging field of ethnoprimatology, which focuses on the ecological and cultural interconnections between human and nonhuman primates, has real potential to bridge these two subfields.

Towards an ethnography of African great apes, Barbara J. King
How can biological and social anthropologists today relate to each other’s work? Using my research in biological anthropology as an example, I show that the African great apes sometimes engage in meaning-making as they act together. That is, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos communicate, especially through gesture, in contingent and creative ways, going beyond a mere exchange of signals to achieve co-construction of meaning. I argue that when biological anthropologists join social anthropologists in studying meaning-making, the two disciplines are inherently in relation.

Anthropology Books

Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human?, Robert H. Lavenda and Emily A. Schultz
Flexibility as the Hallmark of Primate Adaptations
When we try to summarize what makes primate life unique, we are struck by its flexibility, resilience, and creativity. Primates can get by under difficult circumstances, survive injuries, try out new foods or new social arrangements and take advantage of the random processes of history and demography to do what none has done before. Simplistic models of primate behavior assuming that all primates are fundamentally alike, with few behavioral options, are no longer plausible. . . . Increasing numbers of contemporary primatologists are concluding that field studies of primates need to be connected with conservation activities that take into consideration the welfare not just of the animals themselves but also of the ecosystems and human communities with which primates in the wild are inextricably interconnected. (102)

Katherine C. MacKinnon and Agustín Fuentes, Reassessing Male Aggression and Dominance: The Evidence from Primatology. In Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture
In recent years, the evidence for the diversity and complexity of non-human primate behavior has complicated the process of generalizing from primate to human behavior. Yet, at the same time, certain reductionist accounts–stemming primarily from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology–have found their way into popularized narratives that rely on analogies between primate and human behavior that have little basis in the evidence of primatology. . . . As it turns out, there is not one generalized “primate pattern” found in nature but a variety of patterns with some common themes. (83, 87)

The Egalitarians – Human and Chimpanzee: An Anthropological View of Social Organization, Margaret G. Power
This innovative book challenges the perceived view, based largely on long observation of artificially fed chimpanzees in Gombe and Mahale National Parks, Tanzania, of the normal social behavior of chimpanzees as aggressive, dominance seeking, and fiercely territorial. In polar opposition, all reports from naturalistic (nonfeeding) field studies are of nonaggressive chimpanzees living peacefully on home ranges in fluid, open, nonhierarchical groups. This research has been largely ignored and downgraded by most of the scientific community. By utilizing the data from these studies, the author is able to construct a model of an egalitarian form of social organization, based on a role relationship of mutual dependence among many charismatic chimpanzees of both sexes and other more dependent members. This highly and necessarily positive mututal dependence system is characteristic of both undisturbed chimpanzees and humans who live or lived by the “immediate-return” foraging system.Reassessing Male Aggression and Dominance: The Evidence from Primatology
Editor’s note: Although Power may take this critique too far by positing a naturally egalitarian state, she is an important early critic of primatological data influenced by artificial feeding and extensive human interaction.

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