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 19, 2010
  • 02:29 PM

Sacrifice on the Serengeti: Life History, Genetic Relatedness, and the Evolution of Menopause

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Dr. Carin Bondar at her website you’re on the Serengeti Plateau and your children are hungry. For miles in every direction there’s nothing but dry scrub grass with the occasional flat-topped acacia tree marking the landscape. Your oldest has found a spot to dig for tubers but he and your daughter aren’t strong enough to scrape away the hard, baked earth by themselves. Your husband is tracking a wounded gazelle and........ Read more »

Fox, M., Sear, R., Beise, J., Ragsdale, G., Voland, E., & Knapp, L. (2009) Grandma plays favourites: X-chromosome relatedness and sex-specific childhood mortality. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1681), 567-573. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1660  

  • August 13, 2010
  • 02:53 PM

The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part II

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Dr. SkySkull at his Scientopia blog Skulls in the Stars.Peter Kropotkin's notoriety as a political radical was equaled only by the high esteem held for his scientific and scholarly achievements. The discoveries he had made of glacial formations during the Quaternary Period in Russia were received with international acclaim and earned him invitations to join the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, the British Association for the Advancement........ Read more »

Daniel P. Todes. (1989) Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought. London: Oxford University Press. info:/

  • August 4, 2010
  • 02:30 PM

The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part I

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Jennifer Ouellette at her wonderful blog Cocktail Party Physics.If the city is an ecosystem, Huxley embodies the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Lanky and high-strung, estranged from his father at an early age, and the youngest of six children, Huxley was primed from birth to view life as a struggle. Born on May 4, 1825 above a butcher’s shop on London’s outskirts, Huxley was the son of a poor schoolteacher and a member of England........ Read more »

Adrian Desmond. (1997) Huxley:. From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest. info:other/

  • July 26, 2010
  • 06:40 AM

For Great Apes, Addressing Inequality is Child’s Play

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers Edwin Van Leeuwen, Elke Zimmermann, and Marina Davila Ross have shown that gorillas demonstrate an understanding of inequality that they use to modify their behavior under changing social conditions. In more than 85% of the play bouts it was the tagger who made the first move to run as well as the one who ran away. This suggests that there was an implicit understanding that the act of tagging resulted in an unequal relationship an........ Read more »

  • July 22, 2010
  • 07:00 PM

Scientific Ethics and the Myth of Stalin's Ape-Man Superwarriors

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Why the Soviets would fund a human-chimp hybridization program in the first place and what can be learned from this sordid tale of ethical misconduct is an important topic and fascinating in its own right. Il'ya Ivanov represents a scientist, widely respected in his field, whose dedication to find out if something could be done blinded him to ask whether it should be done. It also reminds us of the role that politics can play in the development of scientific research even if the scientists ........ Read more »

  • June 16, 2010
  • 04:13 PM

The Evolution of Hip Hop (by Natural Selection)

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

When most people think of evolutionary biology the first thing that comes to mind probably isn't lyrical poetry. However one of the earliest proponents of evolution, none other than Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, presented his vision for the origin of life in the form of an epic poem in 1803. In his critically acclaimed work The Temple of Nature Darwin mused on the natural history of human beings:

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
........ Read more »

Craze, P. (2010) The hip-hop Richard Dawkins?. Trends in Ecology , 25(7), 385-386. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.04.008  

  • June 15, 2010
  • 12:34 PM

Anthropology, Primatology, and the Definition of Culture: Reply to Sperber

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Chimpanzees have culture (or not) depending on your definition.Image: Irish Wildcat / Creative Commons

Author's Note: The following is an expansion on my reply to anthropologist Dan Sperber on the PLoS ONE article "Prestige Affects Cultural Learning in Chimpanzees."

Culture is like art or pornography, it's hard for people to define but everyone knows it when they see it. Cultural anthropologists have long struggled to develop a consistent definition of the very thing that they study, a proble........ 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  

  • 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  

  • May 18, 2010
  • 01:00 PM

Punishing Cheaters Promotes the Evolution of Cooperation

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

   Could punishing bad behavior be the origin                  of human cooperation?Humans are one of the most cooperative species on the planet. Our ability to coordinate behavior and work collaboratively with others has allowed us to create the natural world's largest and most densely populated societies, outside of deep sea microbial mats and a few Hymenoptera mega-colonies.

A key problem........ Read more »

  • April 22, 2010
  • 12:43 PM

Chimpanzees Prefer Fair Play To Reaping An Unjust Reward

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

A new study shows that chimps sacrifice their own advantage if they earned it unfairly.Image: Owen Booth / Creative Commons

Fairness is the basis of the social contract. As citizens we expect that when we contribute our fair share we should receive our just reward. When social benefits are handed out unequally or when prior agreements are not honored it represents a breach of trust. Based on this, Americans were justifiably outraged when, not just one, but two administrations bailed out the ........ Read more »

  • March 25, 2010
  • 12:36 PM

Cultural Transmission in Chimpanzees

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Culture defines who we are but few can explain where it comes from or why we adopt one tradition over another. In the classic musical The Fiddler on the Roof the main character, Tevye, muses on this basic fact of human existence:

Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything... how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl... This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradit........ Read more »

  • 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 »

  • 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:/

  • March 3, 2010
  • 04:15 PM

Darwinius Is Not a Human Ancestor

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

      Artist rendering of Darwinius.        Image: Julius T. CsotonyiLast year's publication of the fossil primate Darwinius masillae claimed it to be the oldest haplorhine primate ever discovered and a multimedia blitz campaign touted the find as the ultimate "missing link" (an erroneous term that should forthwith be forbidden to all science journalists). Brian Switek at Laelaps (who has an excellent review of this paper) m........ Read more »

  • February 16, 2010
  • 02:20 PM

Bonobos and the Child-Like Joy of Sharing

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

   Bonobos retain juvenile traits related   to tolerance and cooperation.            Image: Vanessa WoodsHow many times as a kid would your parents tell you to grow up and act your age? It turns out that not acting our age may be the very reason why we're so successful as a species.

Brian Hare and colleagues have just released a video (see below) showing a bonobo juvenile voluntarily helping another indiv........ 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 »

  • January 15, 2010
  • 10:48 AM

Deconstructing Social Darwinism, Part IV

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

Richard Hofstadter wrote in Social Darwinism in American Thought that this political theory was "one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation." In this series I have shown many of the inconsistencies that exist in the literature on social Darwinism and have emphasized the main objections that scholars have raised about the utility of the term.

In Part 1 I presented the standard definition of social Darwinism as defi........ 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 »

  • December 14, 2009
  • 01:00 PM

The Blind Leading the Blind

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Image: Jesus! vs. Darwin! by The Searcher

It's a tired old routine, yet time and again the same argument is taken off the shelf, dusted, buffed and then presented with a sly smile as if it were something new. Evolution, it's asserted, is only progressive and builds on earlier adaptations in its march forward through natural history. Therefore, if there is any evidence that a species adapted "backwards" it must mean that natural selection is flawed. However, the fallacy in this argument is........ Read more »

  • 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 »

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