Greg Radick, 2006. “Introduction.” With Amanda Rees. Fielding the Question special section. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 37: 269-72.

(Published version:

This special section has its beginnings in a small workshop held in Leeds at the end of December 2003. The contributors were brought together by shared interests not only in the history of the scientific study and use of nonhuman primates but in connections between primatological knowledge and primatological places, above all field sites. Our hope was to suggest new answers as well as new questions for a historiography that seemed to have advanced little since Donna Haraway’s Primate visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science (1989). That extraordinary book had much to say about field sites and the other spaces—zoos, laboratories, colonies, earth orbiters, and so on—where apes and monkeys found themselves under investigation in the twentieth century. But what was said emerged at the interstices of gender–race–nature. The emphasis was overwhelmingly on the manifold functionings of the primate as a body capable of signifying cultural contradictions and challenges. Without wishing to deny the value of that approach (quite the contrary), we regard the four papers gathered here as representing a change of focus.

Shifts in historians’ agendas can yield new understandings of scientists’ agendas. Consider the American psychobiologist Robert Yerkes and his student-cum-collaborator Gilbert Hamilton. Haraway’s readers met them—Hamilton only marginally—as men whose primatological work expressed and legitimated attitudes of patriarchy conventional in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Her description of Yerkes’s science as ‘a practice of second birthing and rational fatherhood’ (Haraway, 1989, p. 59) was, whatever else might be said for it, hardly one that would have occurred to Yerkes or Hamilton. In the first paper, Marion Thomas takes seriously the accounts that these two gave of their motivations, notably in their letters to one another over the course of a thirty-year friendship. The result is a study that surprises several times over: in its emphasis on the ramifying repercussions of Yerkes’s visit with Hamilton in California in 1915, working with the semi-captive monkeys and ape in Hamilton’s private semi-laboratory/semi-field site; in the remarkable combination of experimental comparative psychology, mental phylogeny and Freudian psychoanalysis which inspired Hamilton’s endeavour in the first place; and in the revelation that Hamilton’s scientific work on sex was deemed so upsetting of conventional opinion that he needed Yerkes’s help to get it published.

The second paper, Jonathan Burt’s on Solly Zuckerman, also offers a sympathetic portrait of someone treated only cursorily by Haraway, and then as a retrograde figure, standing in the way of female emancipation and the triumph of field primatology. There is indeed, as Burt shows, much to offend present sensibilities in Zuckerman’s life and research of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, including the gruesome laboratory experiments he did during the Second World War on the effects on monkeys of blast and concussion. But Burt’s paper, though alert to the ways that Zuckerman failed to live up to his own ideals, nevertheless helps us understand those ideals and how, by their light, field studies of apes and monkeys looked decidedly second best. For Zuckerman, as for Hamilton and Yerkes, a semi-captive population of animals—such as the baboon population that Zuckerman studied in London in the 1920s—balanced the advantages of having natural behaviour under study and being able to study it experimentally. Zuckerman’s own experiences of field observation of baboons only confirmed his sense that natural settings and scientific truth did not mix.

Considered from these vanished vantage points, the emergence of field primatology after the Second World War looks newly puzzling. How and why did ‘the field’ come to acquire such epistemic prestige as it has had? The third and fourth papers, by Amanda Rees and Gregory Radick respectively, take up different aspects of this question. Rees’s paper provides an overview, partly historical and partly sociological, of the development of the field site as a sanctioned place for acquiring knowledge of the natural behaviour of apes and monkeys. For a variety of reasons, a number of zoologists and anthropologists and others found themselves, from the 1950s onward, studying monkeys and apes in the wild. Rees shows how the quest for methodological rigour in the field comparable to that achievable in the laboratory increasingly led these fieldworkers—or, as some came to be known, ‘primatologists’—away from experimental manipulations in favour of ever more sophisticated statistical sampling methods. Yet her paper also goes a long way to breaking down a too simple opposition between laboratory and field. Successful field sites are human achievements no less than successful laboratories. Drawing on interviews with primatologists, Rees paints a vivid picture of the amount and variety of work that goes into maintaining field sites and the scientific rationales that justify their upkeep.

Occasionally, lab and field do pull in opposite directions; Radick’s paper offers a case in point. He looks at a debate that emerged in the 1960s over the predator alarm calls of the monkeys at one field site, Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Amboseli vervet monkeys, it was reported, give different-sounding calls at the sight of leopards, eagles and pythons, and respond to those calls appropriately. Do the calls therefore mean ‘leopard’, ‘eagle’ and ‘python’ in vervetese? Are they, in other words, names or symbols for those kinds of predator? Or, on the contrary, do the calls simply express different levels of arousal? Radick uses this debate to expose the unequal status of the sciences synthesized in the ‘new physical anthropology’ of the Berkeley-based Sherwood Washburn. As Haraway noted, Washburn had done more than anyone to make the field study of apes and monkeys part of what had been a museum science. But field observation for the Washburnians was not sufficient unto itself for the interpretation of primate behaviour; as they saw it, functional anatomy, especially in experimental mode, established the basic framework for interpretation. Since the announcement of the vervet results coincided with recent neuroanatomical work suggesting that the vocalizations of nonhuman primates were products of the limbic system, and therefore strictly emotional in character, the Washburnian conclusion was that the vervet predator calls could not—however they appeared to the field observer of vervet behaviour—be names for the predators.

This contest over the authority of field observations of behaviour versus laboratory manipulations of brains was at the same time a contest between two disciplines, ethological zoology and physical anthropology. In one form or another, the problem of disciplinary boundaries and their impact arises in all the papers here. The scientific study of nonhuman primates was the child of many different disciplinary parents; and different disciplines, however much they have in common (notably, in the vervet case, a deep commitment to adaptationist Darwinism), inculcate different ideals. Psychology in America in the early twentieth century, and comparative psychology in particular, was increasingly a laboratory-based experimental science of learning behaviour. Thomas shows that Hamilton and Yerkes approached the ape mind as comparative psychologists typical of their time and place. Zuckerman, although an anatomist by training, described himself as belatedly taking animal sociology along the same experimental path that animal psychology had already travelled. At ease, as Burt shows, with a wide range of sciences and scientists, Zuckerman later expressed fear that the very introduction of the term ‘primatology’ would lead to a dangerously narrow specialization. Yet even after that science became identifiable, primatological practice retained an inherent breadth, as Rees’s and Radick’s papers testify. The Washburnian anthropologist sought creative syntheses of the conclusions of hominid palaeontology, experimental anatomy, field observation and Darwinian theory, while also acting the parts of diplomat, bureaucrat, fundraiser, personnel manager, even gamekeeper and tourist liason officer.

We referred above to our papers collectively changing the subject in the post-Harawayan conversation about primatology. But there is much continuity as well, especially in respect of the third of Haraway’s great themes, nature. Regardless of disciplinary context, the question of the naturalness of primate behaviour, and how to study it without distorting it, has been a constant element. Hamilton, Yerkes and Zuckerman were at pains to emphasize the naturalness of the behaviours and aptitudes on display among the semi-captive primates they observed, despite the artificiality of the conditions under which they were kept. As Rees shows, primatologists take great care to identify representative field sites, monitor behaviour for signs of aberration while at the site, and select particular methodological strategies so as to minimize the potential disruption to the animals’ lives. On this precautionary principle, the field experiment has been discouraged, and has never become a standard part of the primatological toolbox. (An interesting exception to this rule concerns the vervet predator calls. In the late 1970s, ethological zoologists countered scepticism about vervet semantics with a series of playback experiments, involving the playing back to the vervets of recorded alarm calls when there were no predators around. As Radick relates, Jane Goodall was unwilling to allow such work at the Gombe Field Research Station, for fear that it would catastrophically disrupt the social structure of the animals at the site.)

For a larger perspective on the problem of naturalness, Haraway’s work remains the indispensable resource. As she pointed out, once the rough evolutionary relationship between nonhuman primates and human ones had been established, the way was open to treat the former as simpler versions of the latter. Quite literally, scientists seized upon apes and monkeys in order to examine aspects of the human condition that were difficult or impossible to access directly through the study of the human body or mind. Consider Yerkes’s desire to measure mental capacity. What better way than to ‘work up’ from simpler mentalities to the intricate, culture-laden facilities of the human mind? Or consider Zuckerman’s war work; while the use of human bodies as bomb targets was clearly out of the question, rhesus monkeys were admirably fitted to be adequate substitutes. Similarly, Washburnian anthropologists interested in understanding the basis of human social organization turned to the study of the structures of free-living primate societies. These, it seemed, offered the prospect of examining the prehistoric construction of the social bonds of our ancestors, before they became overwritten with cultural complexity. And at least one key reason why the vocalizations of Amboseli’s vervets were interesting to the wider community was because of what this signalling system promised to reveal about the evolution of what, for Washburn and others, still separates humans from all other animals: the use of language.

Primates, as Haraway might say, are littoral figures. They are creatures of the boundaries, suspended between nature and culture, animal and human, past and present, third-world and first-world. Good primate that she is, Haraway too is a boundary dweller, who has long roamed far from history of science in its more priggish forms, and has consistently insisted on an exploration of the political consequences of intellectual positions. By way of acknowledging our debt to Haraway, we call attention in closing to one of her more recent themes, that of human and nonhuman primates as ‘companion species’. Burt evokes that idea at the end of his paper. He goes on: ‘Perhaps the time has come to begin writing the history of primatology with attention to how human activities have modified the environment of apes and monkeys, and with what effects, for the apes and monkeys as well as for ourselves’. At a moment when serious concerns have been raised about the survival in the wild of gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and other species, Burt’s summons has special resonance. If there is a role for historians in raising consciousness about human–simian interactions, it needs playing now, and fast.