Primates & Pop Culture: Volume I

I’m on a mission, readers!

No, not finishing my dissertation (although I’m still working diligently on that).

No, not being a super-awesome mom to my 5-month old daughter (although I’m doing that too).

This mission is something else.  A new idea for an experiment in pedagogic creativity, and I need your help to flesh it out.

In short, I want to create a class that uses primates in pop culture — real or fictional — as a jumping-off point for teaching students about the realities of primate evolution, behavior, cognition, etc.  I want to shine a light on characters like Curious George and King Kong to lay to rest common misconceptions that people have about chimps, gorillas, and other species in our taxonomic Order.

Note to self: be careful using phrases such as "jumping off point" and "lay to rest"

So who are your favorite pop culture primates?  Please add to my short list to help me build the framework for the class.  Novels, short stories, non-fiction books, TV shows, and movies (documentary or fiction) are all welcome sources.

Curious George
King Kong
The Planet of the Apes series
Project Nim
Koko’s Kitten
Ape House
Orangutan Island & Lemur Kingdom

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Pleasing all of the people all of the time

In case you didn’t already know this……..you can’t.

If you don’t believe me, try teaching a class to a group of college students.  I’ve been instructing at the university level for 6 or 7 years now, and I like to think that as a professor I always make a sincere effort to master the subject material I am teaching and present it in as engaging a way as possible.  Being not too far removed from the classroom experience myself, I remember all too well the boredom and frustration that can accompany a poorly structured syllabus or a lecture by a professor who is clearly  “phoning it in,” and I strive to avoid provoking that reaction among my students: my PowerPoint slides are peppered with photographs and cartoons, I tell jokes and anecdotes, I show movies and plan field trips….Really, I’m on the verge of becoming a performing monkey myself.

I have not resorted to costumes and pageantry. Yet.

And yet, each semester when I receive course evaluations, I find myself faced with contradictory student opinions about the degree of success with which I have designed and executed a class.  A few examples will help illustrate:

Exams
No matter the subject material of a class, exam format is consistently one of the biggest “issues” that arises on evaluations.  In general, my rule of thumb is to use multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank style questions when I teach an introductory course, and to ask short answer/essay questions for more upper level classes.  I think this makes sense given the breadth and depth of material taught in different courses.  But — surprise, surprise — students don’t always agree.  Some adore multiple choice, while others deem it confusing or wholly unfair.  Similarly, some students relish the opportunity to spew any tangential facts they can possibly think of onto the pages of a blue book (ideally in barely legible penmanship), while others panic at the sight of a blank page.  Perhaps these test-taking anxieties are the result of students having different “learning styles”, but they don’t seem to realize when they comment about exam formats on evaluations that (1) nobody gives professors individual dossiers with this information, and (2) it wouldn’t matter.  The reality of the situation is that throughout their academic career, students will face a variety of  assessment methods, not all of which are tailored to their individual strengths.  In other words, you can’t always get what you want.  Call it the Mick Jagger approach to education.

Pictured: Pedagogic Genius

Assignments
I suppose my frame of mind is a bit biased, but if a professor told me that she was going to cancel class one week during the semester so that everyone could instead take a trip to the zoo on the weekend, I would be thrilled.  Honestly, who prefers sitting in a classroom for a 3-hour lecture about primate behavior to watching juvenile gorillas wrestle?

I mean, come on.

I mean, come on.

Actually, to be honest, most students seem to enjoy the zoo.  The behavioral observation assignment that I ask them to do is not difficult, and for many of them it is the first time since childhood that they have visited a zoo and seen exotic animals up close.  But there are always one or two critics who use the evaluation form to complain about the cost of the field trip [Really?  The $16.00 zoo admission is an undue strain for a class in which I don’t require you to purchase a textbook?] or question its purpose.  If I knew who these students were, I might be tempted to make them wear “Debbie Downer” name tags at the zoo.

Writing assignments are also frequent fodder for evaluation comments.  Now, it’s no surprise that most students aren’t crazy about having to write term papers [Newsflash! — Most professors aren’t crazy about grading them, either!].  That’s why, this past spring semester, I tried to change things up a little for the students in my mid-level Human Population Biology class.  Instead of a traditional “research” paper, I asked each student to write a simple grant proposal for a hypothetical research project.  I thought this might be a more interesting assignment for them, and potentially a more useful one in the long-term if any of them had intentions of pursuing a graduate degree.  And because I knew that most of them would not have written anything of this sort previously, I provided them with detailed guidelines about appropriate format and content, as well as a copy of the rubric I would use to grade the assignment.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered, reading the course evaluations, not only that opinions were split about whether students liked the assignment (again, see the title of this post), but also that many of the faultfinders whined that they didn’t know what was expected of them in order to do well on it.  Here I take umbrage!  It’s one thing to simply dislike the work, but don’t claim ignorance when I go out of my way to spell out requirements.   That’s just plain lazy.

“Discussion”
“I wish there had been more in-class discussion.”

This is possibly the most maddening comment that a student can write on an evaluation of one of my courses.  I like student discussion.  I try to encourage student discussion by pausing frequently for questions and highlighting topical news stories.  But more often than not, I find that trying to generate student discussion is like trying to get a response from, well…..

brick-wall

Seriously.  Have you ever posed a question to a roomful of people only to be confronted with a sea of blank faces and utter silence?  How is it possible that someone who regularly participates in this ritual during the semester can later decry the lack of voluntary verbosity?  If you want there to be student discussion, TALK!

***pause for deep breath ***

I like teaching.  And, despite my bellyaching, my course evaluations tend to suggest that my students think I’m good at it.  But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to find a way to please everyone?

Although if I’m making idle wishes, wouldn’t it be nice to win a MacArthur Genius Grant and take a round-the-world cruise?  Evaluation: great idea!

Evolution: this time it’s personal

Usually if I’m thinking about evolution, it’s in a broad academic sense, wondering how the pressures of natural selection have shaped certain characteristics in humans or other species over thousands or millions of years.  Rarely do I stop to think about my own personal relationship with the evolutionary process, or about how my membership in the taxonomic group Homo sapiens predestines me to particular biological challenges.

But now that I am — SPOILER ALERT — in the midst of my first pregnancy, the realities of my evolutionary history are hitting me fast and hard.  I’m suddenly distinctly aware of the physical and physiological difficulties of maximizing my reproductive fitness.  Though it means I am successfully playing the evolutionary game, it turns out that in practice, passing on my genetic material  to future generations is much more of an ordeal than I had anticipated!

Of course, this is not an entirely new revelation for me.  As a student of anthropology I have long been taught that the evolution of bipedalism combined with increases in brain size substantially increased the difficulty of human birth by necessitating a larger head to pass through a narrower pelvic outlet than is seen in chimpanzees and other primates.  In order to enter the world, a human baby must engage in a series of gymnastic maneuvers through the birth canal, and women everywhere — regardless of their knowledge of evolutionary history — know that it’s no exaggeration to say that the process of labor and childbirth is a difficult one.

Image copyright Karen Carr, Smithsonian Institution

Left: chimpanzee infant head size relative to pelvic opening; Right: human infant head size relative to pelvic opening

But the seemingly endless weeks of overwhelming fatigue, constant nausea, headaches, and light-headedness that characterized my first trimester and have now continued into my second have got me thinking about the challenges of reproduction beyond the context of childbirth (still months away), and for the first time I find myself envious of the seemingly easier reproductive pathways that have been favored in other lineages.

For example, my hormone-drenched brain has recently been wondering what’s so great about internal gestation.  After all, it’s not the only viable reproductive strategy.  And with all the discomforts I’m experiencing as a result of the baby growing inside me, I can’t help but fantasize about how much more pleasant things would be if I could emulate a bird and bring forth life simply by sitting on an egg.  Seems ridiculous, right?  Perhaps, but when it comes down to it, some of my favorite activities — reading, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles — are best accomplished while seated, and I’ve gotten  quite good at it over the years.  Moreover, external gestation would go a long way toward evening the sexual division of labor associated with reproduction.  My husband and I, equally capable of egg-sitting, could share incubation duties (as in most species of penguin), and neither of us would need to be subjected to back pain, heartburn, or any of my other aforementioned symptoms.

In a similar vein, I find I have a newly disdainful attitude toward the functionally useless nipples of men.  I am perfectly aware that males have nipples only because of the default human developmental trajectory; selection has had no reason to eliminate them.  Yet I recently found my train of thought wandering along rather critical tracks:
“Come on selection, can’t we step things up a notch?  The equipment is more or less in place — let’s follow the example of the Dayak Fruit Bat* and put it to use!”

And what about sex determination mechanisms?  In humans, sex is dictated by the chromosomal combination that results when sperm randomly meets egg: females have an XX genotype while males are XY.  But in some species, primarily in the reptile class, sex determination is temperature-dependent.  Alligator eggs incubated at or below 86°F produce females, while those incubated at or above 93°F yield males.  In still other cases, both chromosomes and temperature are involved, and “certain incubation temperatures can “reverse” the genotypic sex of an embryo.”

Image copyright Laura Dewan, University of Hawaii

Now, I’m not saying that I want to choose the sex of my baby.  In fact, my husband and I have decided not to find this out pre-delivery.  But I’m sure that some couples, given the choice, would gladly renounce their evolutionary heritage in order to gain this ability.

As for me, I have no doubt that I am oversimplifying.  The seeming perks of other animals’ reproductive pathways must surely be counterbalanced by their own set of drawbacks.  And, as my mother reminded me, I should keep certain broad facts in mind:
1. Memories of my discomfort during pregnancy will fade over time
2. It could always be worse — the road to reproductive success for a female elephant begins with a 22-month gestation!

Kudos to you, Madame Elephant.  Kudos to you.

newborn-elephant

*The Dayak Fruit Bat example may not have been part of the original train of thought recounted here.

Nim and Jennie

Let’s face it: baby chimpanzee are adorable!!  Those big eyes, those silly ears, those gangly limbs….Just examine the following photographic evidence:

Who wouldn’t love to dress up one of these little guys in a pair of overalls and raise him just like a human baby?

The correct answer is YOU.  Despite the cuteness quotient, it is a very bad idea to attempt to raise a chimpanzee in a human home.  They may be undeniably charming as infants, but they mature more quickly than people and are much stronger and more destructive than your average toddler.  The truth is that anyone bringing a baby chimp into his home is simply asking for drama, and is likely to get a healthy serving of trauma to go with it.

This is amply demonstrated in a book I recently read, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.  In it, author Elizabeth Hess chronicles the life of the titular ape who, born in the early 1970s, was taken from his birth mother after only a few weeks and placed into a human home in New York as part of an experiment designed to challenge linguist Noam Chompsky’s theory that language is inherent only to the human species.

Bizarre as this may sound, such “human- fostered ape” language experiments were not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s.  But as Hess’ book clearly shows, these experiments frequently revealed more about their human participants’ ignorance than about a given ape’s ability to learn ASL vocabulary words or grammatical structures.  In Nim’s case, his caretakers were mostly well-intentioned, but they had no grasp of the emotional and cognitive complexity of a chimpanzee.  They simply did not understand that removing him from his mother and the companionship of other chimpanzees and repeatedly changing his living situation and daily routine would profoundly impact Nim’s psyche and behavior.  They did not predict that he might have abandonment issues, or that he would have difficulty integrating with other chimpanzees after years of exclusively human company.  It seems hard to believe, given how much we now know about chimpanzees’ inner lives, but as recently as 30 years ago people still viewed individual chimps as essentially interchangeable — and disposable — research subjects.

All of this is encapsulated in Hess’ narrative, but for those interested in reading more about the human (and simian) drama involved in this  kind of ape language experiment, I actually recommend a different book: Jennie, a fictionalized version of the stories of Nim, Washoe, Viki, and others.  Though it takes some factual liberties, I found Preston’s novel both more readable and more affecting than Hess’ chronicle.  In fact, I have recommended it to several people (including non-specialists) over the past several years, and have always received positive feedback.

So don’t be too upset that it’s best for everyone to keep adorable baby chimpanzees (or other primates) out of your home.  There is plenty of opportunity to house them on your bookshelf.

The Grad School Blues

During my first two years of grad school, when I was juggling a full-time course load, a full-time teaching fellowship, and a ghost of a personal life, I got very good at managing my time.  Lunch breaks, train rides, and office hours became excellent moments to squeeze in twenty or thirty pages of reading about Neanderthal developmental patterns or orangutan conservation.  The couch in the department lounge turned out to be a great place to catch up on 30 minutes of sleep following a late-night paper-writing stint and an early morning section meeting.  I even got used to marathon study and grading sessions on Friday and Saturday nights.  It wasn’t always the most pleasant schedule to maintain, but there was nary a wasted hour in my day.  I was going full speed ahead all the time.

Nowadays, in contrast, I frequently feel as if I am drifting on a windless current, or straining against the inertia of an anchor.  Ostensibly, I still have just as much to keep me occupied: finishing the lab work for my dissertation, writing said dissertation, teaching undergraduate courses (more often as an instructor than an assistant these days), maintaining my newly launched blog, and spending time with my husband and friends.  And yet, I find that without the forcibly structured schedule of those first two years, entire days can easily disappear with nothing productive to show for them.

Part of this is due to my natural tendency to procrastinate (one which I have apparently been honing for many years; last year I discovered that my mother once called me “lazy” in my baby book).  But I think my current round of malaise is just as much about the future as the present.

When I started my grad school program, I did so excited to continue learning about anthropology, and eager to design and execute an original research project.  I confidently imagined my PhD conferral as the inevitable conclusion of a challenging but rewarding journey, hopefully followed by a career in a university or zoo setting.  I had no illusions of scientific grandeur.  I just wanted to travel the “normal” grad school path and emerge on the other side with a plan for my life.

Yeah, right.

The ugly truth about grad school, which I think many learn the hard way, is that the “normal” path is littered with countless unanticipated obstacles.  In my case, the 2 largest of these were
1. my original thesis adviser unexpectedly left for another university, and
2. I had to find an entirely new research project after bureaucratic changes at the site where I planned to do my dissertation work led them to rescind their invitation at the last minute.
These were not exactly small setbacks, and alongside myriad smaller problems and disappointments they illustrate that grad school for me has consisted of more “challenge” and less “reward” than I hoped.  This is not the first time I’ve had the Grad School Blues.

“But T.P.,” you’re saying to yourself, “that’s all in the past!  Now that the finish line is in sight, shouldn’t you be full of renewed enthusiasm?”

Perhaps.  But while I am looking forward to finishing my degree next spring, I also find myself reluctant to face the post-grad school reality of finding a job and putting my PhD to work.  Who wouldn’t be, when it is becoming more common to see articles lambasting PhD programs in general, and knowing the well-documented challenges that women in particular face when trying to balance an academic career with a family?

The whole prospect is terrifying.

When I take a few deep breaths, I have no doubt that my present bout of Grad School Blues will pass in due course.  I will overcome the troubles I’m facing in the lab and compose a scientifically sound dissertation.  And I will graduate next spring, future unanticipated obstacles be damned!

But let my experiences stand as a cautionary tale to any readers contemplating a PhD journey — make sure you know what you are getting yourself into!  As for those of you who know me personally, I’ll just remind you that homemade fudge is an excellent G.S.B remedy, and say thank you in advance for giving me a shoulder to cry on if the Blues should return again.

A matter of perspective

I recently finished reading Alan Weisman’s 2007 book The World Without Us, an extended thought experiment about what would happen on Earth if humans were suddenly to vanish tomorrow, and I am unsettled.  My emotional mind and my academic mind are in conflict, battling one another over what to take away from the book.  It’s like a series of dominance displays in my brain.

Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.  But I am having difficulty settling on a perspective.

On the one hand, each of Weisman’s chapters emphasizes a way in which humans, through our industrial and technological innovations, will leave a legacy of environmental degradation (or at least change) that can be expected to last thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of years.  By imposing our will on the natural world, we not only have carved out a niche for ourselves; we have simultaneously altered the habitats of other organisms in ways most people don’t even realize.  How many people, when they take their groceries home in plastic bags, stop to think about the fact that these bags may end up in one of the floating garbage patches that are slowly expanding across oceans and affecting marine wildlife?   Do you or anyone you know ever consider, as you laugh at Homer Simpson’s antics in the nuclear power plant,  the problems inherent in storing tons of radioactive waste or how that waste would affect surrounding soils if its containers began to erode?  Out of every 10 cell phone calls you make, after how many do you pause to reflect on the millions of birds that are killed each year by communication towers?

My emotional mind weeps at these thoughts.  It mourns the species we are rapidly driving to extinction, and it worries about how humans’ continually increasing population size and demand for resources will affect our own future.  Reading this book, the magnitude of our impact on our surroundings frequently left the conservationist in me feeling panicked and hopeless.

And yet, on the other hand, Weisman reminds us that the earth’s habitats and organisms have weathered disaster before, and that given enough time, even Homo sapiens’ most durable creations and byproducts will eventually be diluted and recycled by natural processes.  We may leave the planet in an altered state —  with higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, more radioactive soils, and widely distributed toxic dioxins —  but we are unlikely to leave it barren.  Life, via evolution, will ultimately find a way.  This too shall pass.

My academic mind, playing the role of the optimist, wants to focus on this long-term perspective.  After all, as an anthropologist I am used to talking about vast swaths of time: Homo sapiens first evolved around 200,000 years ago, humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor approximately 6 to 8 million years ago, primates first appear in the fossil record close to 60 million years ago, etc.  Even if the planet takes hundreds of millions of years to “recover” from our activities, isn’t that just a drop in the bucket compared to the 4.5 billion years it has already been around?  Put another way, if in the past 250 million years biodiversity was able to rebound from the Permian-Triassic extinction, which wiped out around 95% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates, will the impact of humans’ actions on the environment really be that significant?

As cliched as it sounds, only time will tell.  In the meantime, given the unlikelihood of our species simply disappearing, I would be interested to know how Weisman and his collaborators picture a future in which the human species continues to grow (Weisman’s suggestion that we try to scale back our imprint by voluntarily adopting a ‘one child per woman’ policy, though coldly logical, is highly unlikely) and play out its existence through more realistic, possibly even radical, means.

And what about you?  What’s your perspective?

The Full Spectrum

Let’s talk for a moment about the special status that humans have in the natural world — or rather, the special status that we often accord ourselves.   Though most people no longer think of the world in terms of Aristotle’s scala naturae, we still have a tendency to consider ourselves unique, separate from and far more advanced than the rest of the animal kingdom.  And it’s true that humans do lots of things that other animals don’t: we  build cities, we fly airplanes, we write books (and blogs) and create works of representational art.  As a species, our accomplishments are substantial.

But if there’s one thing that modern ethological research has demonstrated, it’s that many of our abilities and behaviors can be found at least to some extent in other species, especially in the primate family.  Since Jane Goodall’s early observations of tool use among wild chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park led her academic adviser, paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, to comment that “now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human,” several once-vaunted hallmarks of humanity have been eliminated from the list of defining characteristics that separate Homo sapiens from other species.  Primatologists have provided evidence that chimps hunt, participate in campaigns of organized aggression toward neighbors, maneuver for status in Machiavellian ways, and reconcile following conflict.  Research on language use by great apes similarly suggests that in many cases the difference between humans and our closest relatives is one of degree rather than kind.

The existence of this behavioral spectrum  has been illustrated yet again in the new issue of the journal Current Biology, in which anthropologists Richard Wrangham and Sonya Kahlenberg report that young chimpanzees in Kibale National Park in Uganda carry and play with sticks in a manner similar to children with dolls.

chimpanzee-stick-doll

A female chimpanzee holds a “stick doll” between her leg and body. (Sonya Kahlenberg)

Examples of play among juvenile animals are not new.  But it is intriguing that these researchers identified a sex-based bias in their data: as in humans, female chimpanzees were more likely to carry stick dolls.  Does this mean that young females are simply practicing for the future by imitating the mothering behaviors they observe within a group?  Or might it suggest innate psychological differences between young male and female chimpanzees?  In either case, how do these data pertain to studies of sex/gender differences in humans? Nature/Nurture debaters, start your engines!!

Whatever the long-term implications of this new study, it serves to illustrate that the more we learn about the behavior of other animals, especially apes, the less reason we have to consider ourselves wholly separate from them.  Of course, this isn’t to say that you should expect to see orangutans in Indonesia building treehouse cities anytime soon.  But try not to be too taken aback the next time you read a story about a wild animal doing something “surprisingly” human-like.
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To read more about play-related sex differences in non-human primates, click here.  And don’t forget to subscribe to The Tinkering Primate if you want to get emails about new posts.  Just click the “Yes Please” button underneath the chimpanzee on the site banner.