An article in the American Journal of Primatology came out recently about the primatologists’ relationship with their nonhuman primate (NHP) research subjects. Augusto Vitale based this reflective paper on his experience working with tufted capuchins, particularly with a 32-year old male capuchin named Cammello. Describing this research monkey, Vitale said:
Beyond my relationship with him as an experimental subject, I liked him very much as a unique individual. He was very successful in all kinds of tasks, eager to do things, and I wanted to believe that he also liked me. Recently, I decided to pay the capuchins colony a visit, since my last brief visit was more than 2 years ago. When Cammello saw me, he rushed to the wire-mesh, screaming at me. He stretched his arms through the metal mesh, embraced and groomed me, and whispered soft sounds. He remained in that position for about 5 min. Keepers and young researchers who witnessed this encounter were surprised and impressed, as it had been nearly 20 years since I had spent any time conducting experiments with him. It was a deeply moving experience.
Taking a cue from this experience, Vitale went on to discuss the relationship between primatological science and feelings. He contended that primatology had benefited and could benefit more from the “trust” formed between the observer and the observed. For example, world knowledge has increased due to the scientific insights gained from pioneering primatologists like Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, and Dian Fossey–all of whom developed a long-lasting bond with the individuals they worked with. When Jane Goodall first recorded tool use among chimps, she also told us about the moving story of Flo and the F family. Dian Fossey studied gorilla society in the highlands of Rwanda and was deeply affected when a young silverback named Digit was found dead and dismembered. Birute Galdikas spent the majority of her adult life studying Bornean orangs and adopted orphaned infants into her family.
However, their naturalistic and ethnographic approaches were criticized due to their anthropomorphism. Primatologists like Jeanne Altmann moved away from this technique by developing “protocols for the nontendentious (less anthropomorphic) descriptions of primate behavior” (Longino 1990:210). The trend thus towards a more quantitative approach in behavioral observation became more pronounced in reaction to the perceived tendentiousness of the early primatologists. Nonetheless, Vitale maintained that anthropomorphism is not necessarily bad and that the qualitative approach can also be useful in illuminating individual primate personalities :
It seems clear that a mixture of empathic and objective positioning informed Jane Goodall’s observations on chimpanzee behavior, as she conducted science in that particular research context. Empathic attitudes can lead to anthropomorphism, and this is now no longer considered as a sin. Pamela Asquith had once argued that anthropomorphism is essential for studying primates and, more interestingly, important for understanding primates. Shirley Strum has advocated a flexible methodology when ‘‘observed’’ and ‘‘observer’’ are so similar [both comments in Strum & Fedigan, 2000]…
I think that the study of primates has to recognize the multiple factors operating in primatological studies, including (i) the need to produce objective science; (ii) the potential empathic dimension toward NHPs by human observers; (iii) the consequent emotional involvement; and (iv) a realistic analysis of the pros and cons of a likely anthropomorphic attitude in primatological science.
The result of this multifactorial methodology is not necessarily chaos of the subjective and objective dimensions, but a way to increase our understanding of important phenomena. A more narrative view on primates’ lives, together with a more quantitative approach, opens new opportunities for describing and understanding differences in personalities within populations of primates.
Vitale therefore argued for the strengthening of the relationship between the researcher and their study subjects. One way of strengthening this bond is assigning each individual with a name. The standard practice for many primatologists has been to assign them with an ID number (a combination of letters and numbers) although little names are given to them in private. That they appear in research reports and journal articles as numbered individuals belie the fact that primatologists (and I believe the majority) give anthropomorphic names to their study individuals. Vitale contended that naming “reinforces a sense of dignity these animals inspire. This is important in relation to the fact that the people who deal with the monkeys, at any level, must always keep their welfare in mind.” Describing their team’s experience in naming a monkey, Vitale explained:
In the case of our team, the person who chooses a particular name for a particular individual does not act in a purely ‘‘technical’’ sense. The name is suggested by capturing the certain character, predisposition, general behavioral attitude of that given individual, or because the name reflects a particular visual feature that often has to do with facial characteristics (‘‘the way he/she looks at me’’). Sometimes, as soon as the monkey has a name, he or she becomes rather immune from invasive procedures; in a way, the name protects him/her….
Establishing a personal relationship can be beneficial for the welfare of a particular individual and, consequently, for the quality of research…Better knowledge of the single individual is valuable in terms of animal welfare, and enriching this knowledge can be motivated both by scientific and sentimental interest.
This article highlighted the need for primatology to integrate the qualitative approach. This would be a nice complement to the advances made in the quantitative area. While the early pioneers might have projected their biases on to their research subjects, they did provide valuable insights into the species they studied. I think primatology could learn a lot from the reflexive practice of its sister discipline, cultural anthropology, albeit with some obvious tweaking because of the nature of primatology’s study subjects. The sophistication of the qualitative approach of contemporary cultural anthropology would be very helpful for the primatologists’ search for an appropriate methodology for behavioral observation. I believe that there are nuances in primate behavior that cannot simply be crunched by numbers. As Vitale said, “critical anthropomorphic language in the study of animal behavior…is legitimate. Anthropomorphic language can be now applied not only when talking about NHP, but for other animals as well. ”
Vitale A (2010). Primatology between feelings and science: a personal experience perspective. American journal of primatology PMID: 20626037