Exposed in Print, I Now Tell My Story

 

 

I was recently exposed for my previous revolutionary activities.

Everything they said about me and my fellow activists is true. And that time was one of the most interesting and intellectually engaging periods of my life. That’s because this particular revolution was not about governance or politics; there was no civil war involved. Instead, it was a scientific revolution that changed the very foundations of the discipline of evolutionary biology.

The reveal, with my work cited several times, wasn’t posted on Facebook or Twitter. Nor was it part of some investigative reporting by The New York Times. It arrived quietly in the mail at university libraries in the January 2020 issue of the British academic journal Animal Behaviour (volume 164, pages 251–260 and authored by Zulema Tang-Martínez of the University of Missouri-St. Louis).

But still, it was fun to see the article and be cited as one of the women in the 1970s and 1980s who helped the discipline of animal behavior, and primatology, in particular, to wake up and see that the lives of female primates were rich in complexity and agency.

We did this by standing in the field or watching captive colonies to gather data on the behavior of primates (prosimians, monkeys, and apes) to test our point. In doing so, we brought to the table innovative observations and theoretical perspectives that pulled animal behavior from a male-centered discipline onto a more level playing field.

I was fully aware at the time that I was participating in a ground-breaking shift. It was also clear that this change was happening, in part, because we were in the midst of the feminist revolution which put more women into college and graduate school. Reliable birth control (the pill) also gave women the option of delaying or forgoing childbirth which then removed the stigma of possible motherhood from any equation that men in power might use to keep women out of the field or the classroom. In essence, this revolution in animal behavior was a revolution (evolutionary biology) within a revolution (the feminist revolution) within a revolution (the sexual revolution). It was clearly a revolution made by the times and we were well aware of it.

It’s no surprise that primatology in particular lead the new “feminist” animal behavior. Primatology already had some high profile women filed workers in Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, and Dian Fossey, although their diligent observations of apes in the wild were often dismissed or downplayed as adventure rather than science. There were also established women animal behaviorists, such as Thelma Rowell, Devra Kleinman, as well as anthropologists and primatologists Jane Lancaster, Jean Altmann, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Phyllis Dolhinow, and Alison Jolly who were the first wave of this academic revolution. In demanding visibility for their work and ideas they lead the way for others, like me, to follow.

Also, anyone doing primate work in those days was a sort of pioneer experience because primatology was just beginning as an official discipline. Others had conducted broad descriptive studies of various primate groups but in the mid to late 1970s it was still a nascent discipline that was starting to apply the scientific method to behavior. As such, the gates were open for innovation.

Primatologists come from various disciplines such as zoology, psychology, ethnology, and ecology but I was lucky enough to be trained as an anthropologist, a discipline that has always been gender-equal. Cultural anthropology in particular had been populated with women who gladly went off to study non-Western cultures, and some had popular visibility such as Margaret Mead who was a media star. The work of those women made any anthropology department, even back then, a comfortable place to be, both intellectually and physically.

My particular induction as a revolutionary came in a very obvious way. I was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Colorado intending to do human paleontology. Then I took the only offered course on primatology (not even taught by a primatologist) and we read the one primate “textbook” at the time which was a series of sketches of various species. While reading that book, I realized that when females were mentioned the comments only related to motherhood. As a young woman with no children, and with ambitions for an academic career, that made no sense to me. So, I went up to the professor and asked, “What about the female monkeys who don’t have babies? What about them?” His response was simple, and it changed my life. “I have no idea,” he responded. “And you should study that.” And so, I did.

I switched to a school that had a growing primatology reputation and a primate research center, the University of California at Davis, and went on to do my Ph.D. dissertation on two species of female macaques (a type of monkey) without infants. Later I studied a third species of macaques and again focused on females. Eventually, I wrote a book called Female Choiceswhich summed up all the theory and work that had been conducted on female primates to date.

In the process, I helped upend the entrenched idea that female primates (which, course, includes humans) were passive actors in their own lives. Instead, I, and many others working at the time on the same issues, showed that female primates were not passive at all; they were interested in sex, had power in their mate choices, evaluated males for their own reproductive success, were the prominent members of social networks in some species and dominant over males in others and they did a lot more than have babies. And that’s what made me a revolutionary.

I moved away from that path in the 1990s and began to write trade books and magazine articles highlighting broad ideas in anthropology and the work of other researchers. But still, last month I was interviewed by filmmaker Mark Devries for an upcoming documentary on evolutionary biology. Once a revolutionary, always a revolutionary, I guess.

The women involved in reshaping animal behavior in the 1970s and 1980s were persistent, clever, educated, well trained, hardworking, and smart. That’s why we won that revolution.

And it was glorious.

Also published on Medium.com.

Continue Reading

Scary Monkeys Threaten Town

As they have been taught to do.....

A recent article in The New York Times tells the scary story of over 8,000 macaque monkeys taking over a town in Thailand during the Covid virus. The citizens of Lopburi were used to these animals roaming the ancient ruins and the temples in the area where they were fed by tourists. But now, the tourists are gone and the monkeys, who are conditioned to expect an unstoppable bounty of snacks and lunches, are hungry and on the prowl. Although small by money standards, and cute by any standard, macaques are equipped with flexible hands and feet, scratchy nails, and sharp teeth. And they are clever and persistent, and they have become an aggressive threat to the locals.

I know all about these monkeyshines. As a trained primatologist, I once conducted a study of tourism and temple monkeys in Bali, Indonesia. My study was a comparison of one highly trafficked temple with a more peaceful place built far out on a spit of land where few tourists ever visited. For many weeks, I stood among the long-tailed (or crab-eating) macaques (Macaca fascicularis), observing the animals as tourists came through the temples, writing down everything the animals and the tourists did.

Macaque monkeys are sacred in Bali because they were the monkey army of Hanuman the Monkey God (a much bigger langur monkey) in the Ramayana epic story, the army that helped Rama find his wife Sita who had been abducted. At Balinese Temples, therefore, these monkeys are tolerated. At the isolated temple, they were lovely animals, calmly sitting together grooming and quietly walking about and looking at the ocean. They pretty much ignored the few tourists who came by. But the other temple was another story, a horror story.

The streams of visitors to that more central temple continuously pulled out wrapped packages of crackers, cookies, and candy and threw them at the animals. The monkey easily broke open the spoils and chowed down, and then they looked for more. Some monkeys jumped on people and rifled through their backpacks and purses while the assaulted and terrified tourist screamed for help. Those terrified voices filled the air as the victim whirled around trying to send the monkey off into space, which never worked. The monkeys just held on until it was clear that there was no hidden food to find. And as they clutched someone’s neck or hair, their tiny hands poked and scratched the victim, which was even more terrifying. Those who arrived in silk dresses and high heels expecting a day with the cute little monkeys left shaking.

The monkeys had another tactic for gaining food. They were especially clever at ripping sunglasses off of people’s faces and running away. When they did, temple guards chased them into the edge of the forested part of the temple and threw fruit at them to encourage an exchange of fruit for sunglasses. That plan worked well for the monkeys, which is why they did it over and over. Even though I was not a tourist and never had any food on me, I was frequently accosted in the same way. I stopped wearing sunglasses the first day but I was repeatedly, endlessly, jumped on, grabbed at, and scratched. I still have the scars.

By the end of the study, I was also scared of them, and that was really strange for me. I have observed four different species of macaques and as a monkey genus, I love and respect them. Macaques are the most geographically spread primate after humans. The 22 species are found in areas around the equator from Africa to Japan; they live in forests, on beaches, and in high barren mountains. Most important, they are tough and adaptable to any situation, even the incursion of humans into their territory. When the nuclear holocaust comes, cockroaches and macaques will own the earth. They are also animals with complex interpersonal interactions, strong kinship networks, and they exhibit a level of behavioral complexity that thrilled me every day I watched them. But these guys had been warped by humans in a way that had turned them into thieves and bullies.

Whose fault was that? It’s the fault of humans, of course. You cannot take a wild animal, give it the easy opportunity for lots of food (which means survival), and then withdraw that food and expect them to go away politely. It’s their livelihood, after all. We see the same learned expectation in Canada geese which hang around parks when they should fly south, in deer roaming neighborhoods eating all the plants, and in raccoons in our sewers. The biggest danger to wild animals is not the wild, but human civilization.

These Balinese macaques had been transformed into creatures dependent on humans, and it made them ugly animals. I knew if the tourists would just stop bringing food into the temples, the troop would go away and find something to eat in its natural habitat, or they would wander out into the rice paddies and chew on that human resource for a while. But then it wasn’t my country or culture, and so who I was to tell anyone what to do?

The people of Lopburi have only one option. Close your doors and windows if you have them and lock them tightly, especially the kitchen and pantry where food is stored. It will take time, but if no one feeds them, the monkeys will go away. But macaques are also very smart and have good long-term memories. So, when the first tour bus comes back after the pandemic, rest assured the monkey will be right there as the bus door opens. Let’s hope by then someone steps in and tells the visitors not to feed the monkeys because macaques are master recidivists, and survivors, when it comes to free food.

Continue Reading Scary Monkeys Threaten Town

The Real Reason We Need Each Other

Our Very Identities Rely on Interpersonal Interaction

 

 

The rush to open the economy up again, even amid rising Covid-19 contagion, has been fueled, in part, by cries that humans are social animals and they need to be with each other. We assume that as a social species — as most primates are — that time around others is a more “natural” state than being alone, and therefore essential. But no one seems to know exactly why humans have this driving need to be in each other’s company.


The idea that just being part of a crowd is necessary for wellbeing doesn’t cut it. Lots of animals hang out in groups — picture herds of wildebeests or schools of fish — but their innate style of grouping evolved simply as an expedient strategy for protection. These species interact with each other a bit, but really, the idea is to be in the center of that herd or school to reduce one’s risk of being eaten by a hungry predator. Human sociality sometimes has that same herd effect, but most of the time when people gather our sociality is very interpersonal and interactive typified by one-on-one exchanges. For some, it’s a mating game; the urge to hit a bar or go to a gym can be more about hooking up than finding someone to talk to. For others it’s distraction or entertainment; eating out with friends is now a national pastime. Human inter-personal interaction is also often about making alliances and fostering cooperation; we are socially intelligent enough to manipulate others to our advantage. But there is another reason humans have a driving urge to be with other people — to find ourselves. Only by bouncing ourselves off others do we realize who we are, and without that constant reflection, humans are bereft because we don’t know our value or our place in life. We need others for clarification, confirmation, and reinforcement of our very identities.


I know this because I live alone. Ever since my daughter left for college four years ago, I have led a pretty solitary life. Not a sad lonely solitary life — there’s always something to do and even while staying inside all day every day because of the virus I am busy with this and that. In that sense, my current life is not so different from the one I had 6 months ago. As a writer, I am home alone all day anyway and at the end of the workday, I usually hang out with only myself and watch TV and knit. Sure, I have friends and talk with them by phone or zoom every few days. And there’s also email. But most of the time, I sail through life solo, making my own decisions and experiencing life all by myself.


I don’t mind all this aloneness, even in the quarantined extreme version, but I often don’t feel like myself at some level. I sometimes say out loud, “I’d just like someone to talk to at 5 p.m.,” as if this were the only thing missing by living alone, but lately I have come to realize that my moments of confusion about who I am are rooted in the fact that there is no one to laugh at my jokes, tell me I am right or wrong when some conflict happens, judge whether as idea of mine is brilliant or stupid, and there no one looking at me but a five-year-old cat. That last might seem superficial, but it’s weird to get a haircut and have no one notice or get new cloths and wear them with no comments from anyone. At this point, I have no idea if I look good or bad, if I am funny or not, or if I have a brain in my head.


I have come to realize that social interaction is not just about being with others, it’s also about confirming who we are. Humans provide each other with reactions and those reactions help form how we think of the world and ourselves. Of course, that necessary entwinement also has a dark side. Negative comments from others can be painful and destructive to the human ego, but those unsetting times are outweighed by the positive reinforcement that we exist because others see us.


Social interaction is a major mechanism through which we find our singular place on the plant. And by providing that service to each other, we humans create a network of interaction and attachment that is the safety net of human identity. We become ourselves as we align with various groups, ingest various belief systems to which others adhere, and have our behaviors judged by others. This process of socialization is apparently evolutionarily important; judging, reassuring, and mirroring are so common and so universal for all peoples that these actions be selectively adaptive.

Of course, living in a culture that glorifies the individual is counter to this entwinement of our identities. A culture that expects everyone to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” not depend financially on anyone, and encourages each of us to live “independently,” might not be the best blueprint for a happy life for primates so dependent of the gaze of others. The current epidemic of loneness in Western culture that has critically affected the mental and physical health of those on their own underscores the misfit between those constructed Western values and our evolutionary heritage.


You’d think that with such big brains humans could easily manage to construct themselves, but clearly, we need a little help from our friends to get there.

 

 

 

Continue Reading The Real Reason We Need Each Other