Would You Commit Infanticide for a Genetic Heritage? Research Time, 06/03/2014

Many of Donna Haraway’s most famous essays featured her take on the history of primatology research as a route to explore the underlying ideologies and concepts of social applications of biological science and thought. The earliest generation she described, contemporaries of the Great Depression and the Second World War, understood apes as reflecting a pure nature without the dilution of culture and egalitarian morality: brutally violent conflict among powerful men to dominate and achieve domination.

If you spell out those four layers of theoretical articulation (the primal, the political, the molecular, and the ideological), you have Haraway’s vision of how the sciences and politics interact. Now, I’m still not sure whether the ideological occupies a foundational role here. I’d prefer that it didn’t, because if an ideology determined all other modes of interpretation and thought, it would be impossible to change. That’s a paradox that would actually doom Haraway’s work. I would think that an ideology and its various articulations all exist interdependently, without a thread gaining absolute priority in generation.

The incredibly adorable Indian langur monkey.
Anyway, the essay “The Contest for Primate Nature” describes the shift in how we understand primate societies happening through the generational shift in the people studying them. Seeing this shift is very easy because they’re all students (or the students of students) of seminal sociobiologist Sherwood Washburn. From the first studies of langur monkeys’ society, they were thought to practice infanticide as an articulation of violent male dominance. Packs of langur are regularly stormed by others, when their men overthrow the leading males of the invaded troop and kill their children. This was, of course, interpreted as a matter of preserving one’s own genetic line.*

* It may sound very amateurish to say so, but I’ve always found this explanation in biological and social evolutionary science to be a little dubious. We know what kind of actions can perpetuate a genetic line, but an animal has no knowledge of evolutionary theory. Just because you see an activity in nature, don’t presume that it’s already evolutionarily optimal.

But as the generations of scientists changed, the interpretation of langur behaviour did as well. The first shift saw Phyllis Dolhinow née Jay (a pupil of Washburn) describe langur social conventions with little reference to males at all, concentrating on the roles of females and infants in the troops. The second shift, in the work of Jane Bogess (trained by an elderly Washburn and another middle-aged former pupil of his), tackled the question of infanticide head-on to find that it wasn’t there.

Yes, after the invasion and ouster/killing of the central males in the langur troop, many of the children tended to die. But Bogess could find no actual evidence that they were murdered, despite being in a better position to do so. The first generation of researchers mostly observed the animals from afar to avoid encounters with more dangerous animals, and so as not to interfere with the natural behaviour of the monkeys. By the time Bogess got to work, the observational techniques of primatology enabled her to live with the langur troop themselves. So she was able to see more of the details of their lives.

Now we can see the ideology of domination appearing again. The original studies of the langur monkeys saw invasions as a natural occurrence, and the infanticide of children by the usurpers as the natural result of securing one’s genetic line through violence. But if the infant monkeys weren’t killed to establish the dominance of the usurping males, how did they die?

Another flaw in the old ideology of nature was that it presumed that every trait and behaviour that was found in nonhuman organisms had to be explained in terms of how it was evolutionarily optimal, how it would have helped this species survive and thrive. I still see this far too frequently today. This idea presumes, essentially, that the process of evolution is done, and that everything in the natural world is the product of optimization.

The death of infants in a langur tribe after a hostile takeover happened due to stress from a variety of factors. One example is the squeezing of habitat space for the monkeys after the encroachment of human settlements around their region of India. If the langur population had enough space, then troops wouldn’t invade each other at all. The infant monkeys are casualties of pathological behaviour caused by ecological changes that the langurs have trouble adapting to. A langur troop under constant threat of invasion and with such a high infant mortality rate isn’t behaving according to the paths that developed in their calmer periods. Just because you’re dealing with a natural population doesn’t mean that every behaviour is automatically optimized. If it were, then species would never actually go extinct.

Ultimately, Haraway has traced a story of the purging of an ideology from an evolutionary science. The field no longer presumes that animal societies operate by violence to assure male dominance, or that human industrial processes have no subtle effects on animal behaviour, or that all natural behaviour is always already evolutionarily optimized to the current situation because it has been optimal in the past. Worth at least an extra paragraph or two when I eventually get back to my Ecophilosophy manuscript revisions.

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