Decolonizing Primatology: Part I

We all have texts that are formative in our academic, professional, spiritual, personal, mental, and philosophical lives. There are a few books that I can point to as turning points in my intellectual life. For example, Orientalism by Edward Said, Le Suicide by Émile Durkheim, Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas, Why I’m Not a Scientist by Jon Marks are all incredibly important books in my own intellectual development (note: I am leaving out so much and this is merely a short list that captures the first several books that popped into my head when I reflected on it).

A Japanese View of Nature: The World of Living Things (Seibutsu no Sekai: 1941) by Kinji Imanishi is another of these texts. All at once, The World of Living Things is a critique of Darwinian fundamentalism (see: Darwinian Fundamentalism by SJ Gould), philosophy of biology, an examination of the cultural particulars that go into the formulation of theory, and just plain old solid theory construction (and the introduction of a idea–niche construction–that didn’t become vogue until fairly recently).

I think that the most evident function of The World of Living Things is a critique of the view that natural selection is the primary or sole mover in evolutionary processes. For those of us that utilize evolutionary theory in our work today, this isn’t really news, but for those in the first half of the 20th century (the book was published in 1941, only 82 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species) natural selection was placed on a pedestal. This isn’t to convey that natural selection isn’t an important part of evolutionary processes, but to indicate that it isn’t the whole picture.

Imanishi is writing both in direct opposition to Darwinian theory (Hokkyo 1986) and from a Japanese perspective, incorporating Japanese cosmology (hence the title of the book). The notion that organisms are not merely epiphenomena floating on the sea of the natural world was a fundamental break from the idea that they are molded by their environmental context. Fitness–contrary to popular understanding–refers to the way in which organisms fit into their environment like how a round peg fits into a same-shaped hole (as opposed to physical fitness like being strong or having the ability to run quickly).

Instead organisms work towards harmony with the ecosystem in which they occupy, which requires change in the organism AND in the environment. Lewontin, Kamin and Rose (2017) provide us with four ways in which organisms are not merely at the mercy of their environments. They passively and actively change it while also making sense of it.

  1. Organisms construct their environments out of the bits and pieces of the world.
    1. This requires both physically and conceptually constructing the world. Its not enough that objects exist in the range of the organism. Some things in the environment matter to varying degree while other thins do not. The example given in Not in Our Genes is that of different genra of birds. To the phoebe, straw is really important but the stones directly next to the straw is not part of its active environment. However, to the thrush, the stone matters (for cracking snails) while the straw is of little importance (p. 274).
  2. Organisms transform their environment.
    1. Trees alter the soil, animals move things around, defecate, and many landscapes are drastically transformed by the lifeways of beavers (p. 274).
  3. Organisms transduce the physical nature of their environments.
    1. Organisms have to make sense out of the space that they occupy. Stimuli has to be transduced into hormonal and behavioral responses. Organisms have to respond to the going-ons of the world around them through both patterned responses and agency (p. 274).
  4. Organisms alter the statistical pattern of the world around them.
    1. Seed dispersal, predators reducing prey populations (NC knows this pain with the extinction of wolves and cougars… damn deer), prioritization of certain stimuli in the world over others, etc. (p. 275).

The authors of Not in Our Genes also respond to a common criticism of this dialectical approach. Critics may respond that laws of nature are fixed and so if anything, organisms are still at the mercy of these. However the authors use the law of gravity as an example of why context is important. To very small aquatic organisms, gravity is experienced very differently and they are affected much greater by Brownian motion of the surrounding water molecules that we larger organisms are totally unaware (p. 275).

The point I am making is that the Western Enlightenment idea that life is deterministic and that organisms are simply stimuli-response machines–which still captures the imagination of biologists everywhere–is reductive and doesn’t capture the complexity and richness of life.

As a primatologist, I still have to read about female primates being constructed as mere resources for males to map on to and fight over. This reduces the agency and experience of females in whatever primate taxa is of interest to that of a bit of fruit on a tree. This seems incredibly problematic and has broader negative social consequences outside of the lives of the primates and affects how we conceptualize people of our own species (this could, and may, be a whole other post).

This is where multispecies ethnography comes in: the transition of organisms from “bare life” (that which is killable) to life with biographical and political lives (Agamben 1998 via Kirksey & Helmreich 2010). This marks the transformation of the study of non-human life from a matter of the study of some mechanical other into a exploration of the ways in which human life is inextricably intertwined with other ways of being and becoming (Kohn 2007).

My work (as well as Erin Riley, Tiffany Wade, Carolyn Jane Anderson, Amy Klegarth, and Linda Wolfe- to name a few) with introduced rhesus macaques in central Florida illustrates how anthropogenic factors force new ways of being onto non-human life. The macaques had to construct a niche in the Florida riverine floodplain (Johnson 2017Anderson 2016), the local Floridians have to deal with the fact that there are exotic mammals roaming Silver Springs State Park and surrounding areas, and the macaques have to accommodate the human response (Riley & Wade 2016). The lives of the introduced macaques of Florida and the humans that live there are entangled in a new way and this can be seen in the various new write-ups and policies in Florida (Google it!).

The decolonization of primatology and broader multispecies studies has produced rich and rigorous scholarly research which has illustrated how entangled life is. The distinction drawn between human and non-human life breaks down once the ontological relationships of being are interrogated. Life is surely linked by our evolutionary history but also through our social, cultural, political, ecological, medical, and spiritual contexts.

By taking a critical multispecies approach to primate studies, we can diversify perspectives, incorporate local knowledge and narratives concerning the primates with which they live commensally, abolish the Western Enlightenment-era ideas about life and its relationship to humans. This alters the representation of non-human life and opens up a broader pool of knowledge from which we draw when trying to address problems that both humans and non-human beings encounter in an ever-changing world.

For further reading check out:

Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science and When Species Meet by Donna Haraway

The Animal Estate and The Platypus and the Mermaid by Harriet Ritvo

How Animals Grieve by Barbara King

One Comment Add yours

  1. This is amazing. Keep posting please!


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