2009 01 10
Recently read: Through a Window

Posted by in: Books, Primatology

Jane Goodall. Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe

When Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees in the 1960s, it was not considered proper to speculate about the mental states of animals. Animal ethology was at the time very much influenced by behaviourism, which was then still influential in the study of human beings, and also by much deeper and longer running currents in Western thinking about animals. As Goodall tells it, she escaped the dominant fashion in animal ethology because she was launched fortuitously without any formal training into the study of chimpanzees in Gombe, now a national park in Tanzania, by Louis Leaky, and only came into contact with the prevailing wisdom about animals when she subsequently went to Cambridge for doctoral work. By this point, the Goodall story goes, she had accumulated too much naive experience simply observing animals to accept the standard party line.

This story strikes me as possibly a bit too modest. Goodall seems to me much too tenacious, too temperamentally biased against then current assumptions about animals, and too sharp to have settled for them in some counterfactual world in which formal training preceded fieldwork. In any case, one of her accomplishments over a long and celebrated career was to help overturn many of the assumptions then current in animal ethology and primatology, with work that stands as a model of empathetic observation and engagement.

Through a Window is about that long career, filled with reflections accumulated over a lifetime of such observation. Much of the book narrates various happenings in the champanzee communities in Gombe, as observed by Goodall herself and other scientists and helpers in the park. Goodall relates the rise and fall of various alpha males in shifting networks of coalitions and alliances; a series of cannibalistic infanticides practiced by a mother-daughter team of chimpanzees on other weaker mothers and their infants; her discovery of tool use among chimpanzees; the fate of a splinter group of chimpanzees inhabiting a dangerous sliver of territory between two other groups; and more. If you find such stories fascinating and addictive, as I do, there’s a lot to enjoy in this book.

The account also has all of marks of Goodall’s particular brand of engagement with her subjects. She does not affect the traditional pose of scientific detachment, for example, while relating the series of infanticides. She is (understandably) horrified and even angry. Even more interesting, I thought, was her statement that after the first infanticide, she and her research team were determined to intervene to prevent another such incident, if they could. The statement raises interesting questions about the relationship between the observed and the observers that her book does not really address. The desire to intervene in such cases must be strong, but I wonder if enough interventions of this kind would leave the researchers with a distorted view of wild chimpanzee behavior and their group dynamics. I had similar questions about the treatment of some chimpanzees with medicine and the use of bananas in researcher/chimp interactions. (As it turns out, there appears to be some controversy (under “Criticism”) about precisely this last worry among primatologists. Goodal touches on this issue at the end of the book, but in a way that seemed to me perhaps in some tension with earlier parts of it.)

But I’ll leave these worries to the primatologists. The most striking thing for a layperson in books such as Goodall’s (or Frans de Waal’s, to name another well-known primatologist—see his engrossing Peacemaking Among Primates, for example) is how engaging the narratives are. So much about human beings is unique in its character and its complexity. But for all that, we share a great deal in common with other animals too, and the most with chimpanzees, our closest cousins. Goodal has a real talent for bringing out both the contrasts and the points of comparison with these stories, and that’s reason enough to recommend giving this book a try.

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2008 10 15
Recently read

Richard Price. Lush Life

A run of the mill murder and an equally run of the mill investigation. The interest here lies in the way the author takes us through it all from start to finish, and from several angles. Nothing too special about this novel, but it’s at least competently written. Price has written for The Wire, a fact that will surprise no one who reads more than a page of two of the book. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. If you’re a New Yorker, you’ll probably enjoy the depiction of the Lower East Side, where all the action takes place.

Jonathan D. Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

Did you know that in the middle of the 19th Century, a bizarre Christian cult led a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty which succeeded in taking over much of Southern China? Well, good for you, but I certainly didn’t. Hong Xiuquan was an obscure failed scholar with a passing acquaintance with Christianity (via a book of translated excerpts from the Bible) when he had a strange dream introducing him to God himself and informing him that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother. Hong Xuiquan was evidently persuasive enough about his revelation to draw followers, who were then hardened in their faith by persecution. The resulting civil war, against the backdrop of chaotic 19th century China, led to the deaths of more than 20 million. Think of Waco, but in much of Southern China. Actually, that’s a bit unfair. The Taiping — so they called themselves for a time — Movement deserves credit for being remarkably resourceful and militarily competent, even if they were completely bonkers.

This book takes us through these incidents, which I found so strange and improbable that I turned to Google several times to reassure myself that I wasn’t falling for a well-written but rather implausible alternate history of China. I found it a bit slow at first, but once it gets going it’s marvelous. And the theological bits are absolutely hilarious. The Taiping Movement’s interpretation of Christianity was filtered through questionable and at first partial translations of key texts, prejudices of the Taiping, and Hong Xiuquan’s personal revelations (which were assumed to be more authoritative regarding the word of God than scripture, since, duh, Hong had actually met the guy). This makes for fascinating attempts to rewrite and retranslate the Bible, and for very funny encounters with European Christians, which several times over resulted in a very quick slide from superficial agreement about Christianity to complete mutual incomprehension.

Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind

You really can’t go wrong with a book called Baboon Metaphysics. Cheney and Seyfarth’s book is not, however, about the Baboon’s views of time, space, properties and existence. Rather, the “metaphysics” in the book’s title refers to a jotting in one of Darwin’s notebooks:

Origin of man now proved.—Metaphysics must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

The term “metaphysics” here is used more broadly to refer to the basic ways in which the mind constructs the world, but it emerges that the authors have a special interest in social cognition.

Baboon Metaphysics investigates various aspects of Baboon cognition (especially relating to their social lives), moving back and forth between accounts of the researcher’s own fieldwork in Botswana and a vast literature on experiments performed on Baboons and other primates in captivity. The observations made and distinctions drawn along the way are extremely interesting, but I wasn’t convinced that the authors had managed to fit everything together into a coherent or persuasive framework. Their aim was to tie together the cognitive capacities that suit Baboons to their highly social way of life, and the cognitive preconditions for language use. Baboons are, of course, not all the way to language, but when it comes to communication they manage to get on fairly well in many respects. This is significant, according to the authors, since if complex social life puts a strong selective pressure on cognitive capacities that are a precondition for language use then it may give us clues about the successful human development of language. (At least, that’s what I understood of the argument. It’s entirely possible I’ve completely misunderstood it, and, since I read the book a while ago, misremembering it to boot. What do you want, a refund?) Well, perhaps, perhaps, but there are so many tricky unanswered questions — most of them acknowledged with refreshing frankness by the authors themselves — remaining about language, the relevant cognitive capacities, Baboons and other primates, and indeed, other highly social creatures that appear to lack the relevant cognitive capacities, that the authors’ overarching argument seems too weak to hold together all their interesting observations.

Carl Zimmer. Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life

E. Coli gets such a bad rap. Most strains are completely harmless, and this little organism has probably taught humanity more about genetics and evolution than any other, since it’s so easy to study, grow, and manipulate in the lab. Zimmer looks at everything from the history of genetics to the politics of evolution in this engaging book.

Jack Weatherford. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Weatherford seems to have two aims in this book. The first is to rehabilitate Genghis Khan’s image. Far from being a barbaric, bloodthirsty brute, Weatherford depicts a savvy, open-minded proponent of religious toleration and open trade, who abolished torture and supported multiple far-seeing reforms. (Weatherford does not attempt to argue that Genghis Khan was terribly civilized by today’s standards when it came to the laws of war. Cities that surrendered to him were treated with leniency, but woe to the cities that resisted. This hardly marks him out as special for the period, though.) Genghis Khan’s accomplishments certainly suggest a remarkable man. In the course of a generation or two, the Mongols went from being a loose collection of feuding tribes to conquering a fantastic amount of the earth’s surface. The second aim of the book, announced in the book’s subtitle, is to sketch the many ways that all of this has impacted the rest of the world since then.

I’m not in a position to judge how plausible Weatherford’s account is, but the book is fun and very readable.

Joseph Mitchell. My Ears Are Bent

A collection of newspaper pieces by Joseph Mitchell (who spent most of his career at the New Yorker) originally published between 1929 and 1938. In these short pieces, Mitchell interviews cops, drunks, lady-wrestlers, pickpockets, ASCAP investigators, marijuana smokers, and more from Coney Island to Redhook to the Lower East Side to Harlem. In one memorable piece, he attends an execution; in another, he watches George Bernard Shaw spar irritably with the press. He has a fantastic eye for the telling detail, and wonderful control over the language in which he relates it. A convincing rebuttal to anyone silly enough to think that journalism can’t rise to the level of literature.

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