The Primate Diaries

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Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.

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  • August 17, 2009
  • 12:00 PM

Those Cheating Testicles, or Who's Your Baby?

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Benjamin Franklin once quipped, "Where there's marriage without love there will be love without marriage." His affairs are well known in American history, however this founding father may have been stating a truth extending to evolutionary history as well.

Christopher Ryan (author of the forthcoming Sex at Dawn) offers some thoughts on the role of novelty in the sex lives of our favorite primate. He suggests that men are drawn to variety in sexual partners while women are drawn to variety in ........ Read more »

  • September 21, 2009
  • 02:00 PM

The Sacrifice of Admetus: How the Evolution of Altruism Reveals our Noblest Qualities

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Heracles battles Death for generosity's sake / Frederic Lord Leighton (1869-71)

Whereas great scientific theories stand the test of time when they accurately predict the natural world through repeated empirical trials, great literature transcends the ages when it speaks to universal qualities of human experience. Such inspirational works can also, without the authors realizing at the time, reveal the sublime beauty and tragedy of our evolutionary drama. Few classical authors have tapped into ........ Read more »

Felix Warneken, Brian Hare, Alicia P. Melis, Daniel Hanus, & Michael Tomasello. (2007) Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children. PLoS Biology, 5(7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050184  

Claudia Rutte, & Michael Taborsky. (2007) Generalized Reciprocity in Rats. PLoS Biology, 5(7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050196  

  • July 8, 2009
  • 04:50 PM

Brooding Angelmakers

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Offspring Abandonment in the Ancient and Natural World

In the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex the great kingdom of Thebes is condemned following a case of mistaken identity (and a little patricide). The sordid tale begins when the infant prince is abandoned by his parents (see right) after learning of a prophecy that his son will one day murder his father, marry his mother and assume the throne. His ankles pierced with a spike, young Oedipus is sent to be abandoned atop mount Cithaeron. Whi........ Read more »

  • July 7, 2009
  • 04:01 AM

The Struggle for Coexistence

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

A cancer cell may eventually kill its host when an error in transcription causes it to multiply despite the signals not to from its external environment. Likewise, evolutionary theory has long assumed, following the work of Thomas Malthus, that all species attempt to maximize their reproductive success and grow their range exponentially. This overpopulation results in a "struggle for existence" over the remaining resources and, if gone unchecked, may result in a massive plunge in popul........ Read more »

  • November 9, 2009
  • 12:30 PM

Reciprocity and the Anthropology of Organ Transplants

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Reciprocity is an intrinsic feature of human beings as well as most species of ape. Chimpanzees and bonobos regularly engage in granting gifts of food and expect a return on their generosity (those who don't reciprocate are less likely to receive such gifts in the future) (de Waal and Brosnan 2006). This "tit-for-tat" basis of exchange exists in all human societies and becomes ritualized based on the cultural norms that are present. One of the most well known descriptions of reciprocity among........ Read more »

Margaret Lock. (2002) Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death. California Series in Public Anthropology, no. 1. . info:/

  • May 27, 2010
  • 01:25 PM

Prestigious Chimps and the Emergence of Cultural Innovation

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

A new study in PLoS ONE by Victoria Horner, Darby Proctor, Kristin E. Bonnie, Andrew Whiten, and Frans de Waal suggests that prestige is an important factor in other primates besides humans. By employing a simple behavioral experiment these researchers demonstrated that chimpanzees, when given a choice between two nearly identical tasks, will choose the one they previously witnessed a high-ranking member of the troop perform. ... Read more »

Horner, V., Proctor, D., Bonnie, K., Whiten, A., & de Waal, F. (2010) Prestige Affects Cultural Learning in Chimpanzees. PLoS ONE, 5(5). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010625  

  • July 17, 2009
  • 02:53 PM

Adoption in Non-Human Primates

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

How genes for altruism can benefit strangers as well as kin

The generosity of adoption has long been considered a unique human hallmark.

Image: Shadows of Forgotten AncestorsFor decades it was conventional dogma that humans were the only species that used tools. "Man the Toolmaker" was our celebrated designation. The hominin fossil Homo habilis (or "handy" man) was even defined within our genera primarily because the skeleton was associated with stone implements. However, when Jane Goodall ........ Read more »

  • October 28, 2009
  • 06:00 PM

Eye of the Beholder

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

As a species we are consumed by love. Ask yourself, how many cultural productions (films, stories, songs, dances, arts) do not have love, the loss of love or the absence of love as their central theme? Would you be satisfied with what was left over? That fact that love has so much power over us is just one reason why evolutionary research is so fascinating.

A well-worn trope of human culture is mens obsession with female infidelity. Othello. Madame Bovary. Desperate Housewives. These are........ Read more »

  • August 7, 2009
  • 06:05 PM

Why Chimpanzees Make Bad Suicide Bombers

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

The Evolution of Spite is the Evil Twin of Altruism

Someone walks into a crowded restaurant, looks about the diners calmly, and blows themselves up as well as everyone nearby. Why? This is a scenario that forces us to explain the dark side of human nature. Why do humans have a capacity for such hate that they'll take their own lives in order to destroy others?

A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on chimpanzee behavior suggests that humans may be alone in this way: a........ Read more »

Jensen, K., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2007) Chimpanzees are vengeful but not spiteful. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(32), 13046-13050. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0705555104  

  • December 1, 2009
  • 11:15 AM

Misconceptions About the Battle in Seattle

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

There are two fundamental misconceptions surrounding the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle ten years ago this week. One is that the protests represented a "riot" and that the majority of protesters were violent. The second is that the protests were counter-productive and actually hurt the cause of reform that would benefit poor countries trying to have their voices heard. Both of these are wrong and, in fact, are just the opposite. Read the rest of this post... | Read........ Read more »

  • January 11, 2010
  • 12:00 PM

Deconstructing Social Darwinism, Part III

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3

In Quentin Skinner's celebrated history The Foundations of Modern Political Thought he writes that:

If the history of political theory were to be written essentially as a history of ideologies, one outcome might be a clearer understanding of the links between political theory and practice.

In Part II of this series I highlighted how a common objection to the political theory of social Darwinism is that it was a misapplication of Darwin's science to already existing id........ Read more »

  • July 14, 2009
  • 11:05 PM

Darwin's Connection to Nazi Eugenics Exposed

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

On this day 76 years ago (July 14, 1933) a sterilization law was passed in Nazi Germany, known as Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses (Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring). Any German was a target if they were found to be suffering from a range of perceived hereditary ailments, such as congenital mental deficiency, schizophrenia, manic-depressive insanity, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea, blindness, deafness, any severe hereditary deformity or even severe alcoholism......... Read more »

  • January 28, 2010
  • 12:05 PM

How Can Haiti Be Sustainable?

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

As I wrote yesterday in my piece for The Huffington Post, the history of Western financial involvement in Haiti has been one of growing the nation's textile industry despite the fact that 70% of Haiti's annual income comes from agriculture. By emphasizing programs such as HOPE and HOPE II, the United States has increased the profits of American companies, but the livelihood of Haitian workers has decreased at nearly the same rate.

[A] 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service found th........ Read more »

  • October 12, 2009
  • 04:24 PM

Why Do Women Experience Menopause?

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Whether they're referred to as hot flashes, power surges or personal summers, the experience of menopause is not fun. But could it be the result of human evolution?

One of the most fascinating areas of research in evolutionary studies is the question of reproductive senescence. Why do women go through menopause? Chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest evolutionary relatives who we share 99% of our DNA with, are reproductive throughout their lifespans but human women can spend the last third of th........ Read more »

Lahdenperä, M., Lummaa, V., Helle, S., Tremblay, M., & Russell, A. (2004) Fitness benefits of prolonged post-reproductive lifespan in women. Nature, 428(6979), 178-181. DOI: 10.1038/nature02367  

  • March 11, 2010
  • 12:00 PM

Coca-Cola and Water Use in India: "Good Till the Last Drop"

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

                 Coca-Cola sucks India dry.      Image: Carlos Latuff / Wikimedia CommonsThe marketing executive who came up with Coca-Cola's popular slogan in 1908 most likely never expected it would be taken so literally. However, a hundred years ago there probably weren't many who imagined a term like "water wars" could exist in a region that experiences annual monsoons.

On Feb........ Read more »

  • October 22, 2009
  • 12:10 AM

Male Chauvinist Chimps or the Meat Market of Public Opinion?

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Female chimpanzee with her infant requests meat after a successful hunt.
Image: David Bygott / Tree of Life Web Project

Owen Lovejoy's recent paper about Ardipithecus ramidus and human origins (see my detailed critique here) bases its argument on the male provisioning observed in chimpanzees. However, what went unacknowledged in his theory was the inherent gender bias it represented. A perfect example of this was observed in April with the release of the very study on provisioning behavior th........ Read more »

  • October 11, 2009
  • 07:00 AM

Does Taking Birth Control Alter Women's Sexual Choices?

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

In the classic film Casablanca, the drama hinges on Ilsa's choice between two men: her kind and supportive husband or her rugged and passionate ex-lover. In a moment of abandon, Ilsa returns to her lover's arms only to later change her mind and choose the more stable life she would have with her long-term partner. But what if something as simple as a pill had caused Ilsa to feel differently and make the opposite choice?

In a new paper in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution biologists ........ Read more »

  • March 9, 2010
  • 05:39 PM

Darwin and Spencer in the Middle East

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

It is a common argument by those who are opposed to evolution's implication for religious belief to label Darwin as a social Darwinist and a racist. Adrian Desmond and James Moore's book Darwin's Sacred Cause has gone a long way towards dispelling any claims that Darwin sought to justify black inferiority (in fact, as they show, it was just the opposite). However, the claim that Darwin inspired social Darwinism is a persistent argument and those that proffer it will stoop to any level in order........ Read more »

Elshakry, Marwa. (2003) Darwin's Legacy in the Arab East: Science, Religion and Politics, 1870-1914. Princeton University D.Phil. Thesis. info:/

  • August 26, 2011
  • 09:50 AM

Penis Spines, Pearly Papules, and Pope Benedict’s Balls

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Author’s note: The following originally appeared as a guest post at A Primate of Modern Aspect and subsequently formed the basis for a technical comment published by Nature co-authored with John Hawks. This post is also notable in that it began my collaboration with artist Nathaniel Gold. There is very little known about the reign [...]

... Read more »

McLean, C., Reno, P., Pollen, A., Bassan, A., Capellini, T., Guenther, C., Indjeian, V., Lim, X., Menke, D., Schaar, B.... (2011) Human-specific loss of regulatory DNA and the evolution of human-specific traits. Nature, 471(7337), 216-219. DOI: 10.1038/nature09774  

  • October 26, 2009
  • 06:25 PM

Republican Losers Have Lower Testosterone

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

In a new understanding of the term power grab, researchers have shown that the supporters of a political candidate literally have their power taken from them after they lose an election. In a new study by Steven J. Stanton and colleagues in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, researchers asked 163 Republican and Democratic voters (57 of whom were men) to provide saliva samples both before and after the 2008 election between John McCain and Barack Obama. What the researchers determined was that R........ Read more »

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