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Studying Chimps Is “Politics by Other Means”

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Photo credit: Alexas Fotos, via Pixabay.

review by animal historian Brigid Prial of a recent book in which chimpanzee experts reflect on their work tells us a good deal about the chimpanzee expert world.

The reviewer is also the author of “Primatology Is Politics by Other Means” from which we learn:

“Adam and Eve, Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, Tarzan and Jane: these are the figures who tell white western people about the origins and foundations of sociality. The stories make claims about “human” nature, “human” society. Western stories take the high ground from which man — impregnable, potent, and endowed with a keen vision of the whole — can survey the field. The sightings generate the aesthetic-political dialectic of contemplation/exploitation, the distorting mirror twins so deeply embedded in the history of science.

Wait. Isn’t it a fact that humans do have a keen “vision of the whole” and that chimpanzees do not? And cannot?

Theorizing and Politicking

Yes. Humans are concerned with chimpanzee welfare and chimpanzees are not concerned with human welfare. All the theorizing and politicking in the world will not change the difference that the human mind makes.

From the h-net review of Chimpanzee Memoirs: Stories of Studying and Saving Our Closest Living Relatives (2022):

Several chapters, notably by established primatologists Goodall, Richard Wrangham, and Christopher Boesch, discuss aspects of their work that have been viewed as controversial, perceived as challenging orthodoxy, or publicly misconstrued. Boesch describes how his observations of cooperation and teaching behaviors in chimpanzees at Taï Forest in Côte D’Ivoire were dismissed by anthropologists and psychologists who privilege laboratory data and believe in “human superiority” (p. 88). Goodall and Wrangham both noted backlash they had received regarding their findings about aggression and violence in chimpanzees, controversies that are examined extensively by Erika Lorraine Milam in her book Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America (2019). Supervisors told Goodall that publishing her claims in the 1970s would lend credence to those who argued that war was an inevitability, while Wrangham received similar resistance to his admittedly provocatively titled book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1997). Many authors also describe frustration with the way their research has become sensationalized or stripped of nuance in the media. Elizabeth Lonsdorf was particularly disappointed to see her work lampooned on a “men’s rights” website. For historians of science, these chapters provide insight into how the science of animal behavior is mined for answers to contentious social questions of gender and violence.

But haven’t these academics made their own field ridiculous already? If they want to claim that chimpanzees, who lack abstract thinking, can teach us a lot about human beings, who have it, they have just plain set themselves up.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.