“How could primatology not be a territory of feminist struggle? Western women’s place is indeed in the jungle. Whether other women and men occupy that material/mythic space when they watch monkeys and apes is a function of other histories and other stories.” (Haraway, 1984)
I am currently close to completion of the second-to-last taught module of my master’s programme: Family Hominidae and Other Primates. I was distracted at the outset of this module by my lack of primatological knowledge…. What is the primate family tree? What are the old and new world monkeys? Must I really tackle Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species? One symptom of my CFS/ME-induced cognitive issues is a preoccupation with details. But I’m happy to say I moved on fairly swiftly as we progressed through the weekly topics, and didn’t dwell for too long on my inability to retain hundreds of latin taxonomical terms…
We will complete two assignments for this module: an academic poster critiquing a study, and a longer essay on the topic of our choice. Now, an abundance of choice is something that throws up barriers to me every time too; I know that I tend to prevaricate terribly and often change my mind multiple times when it comes to the subject matter. But I also know that choosing an essay question too soon might preclude a topic covered later on in the schedule that absolutely has me gripped. Blessedly, the issue was avoided entirely as I found one question nagging at me throughout the first few weeks of the course: what is the importance of the contribution of women scientists to the field of primatology? Unusually, the most well-known of all primatologists are women (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey) and many women, whilst not so ‘famous’, continue to contribute to the field: more so than in many other sciences.
Why does primatology matter so much to feminists?
I don’t intend to conflate women with feminists necessarily; but there is much feminist discourse in and around primatology, more so than the study of many other non-human animals. Donna Haraway is a key early figure in the debate, having published Primatology is Politics by Other Means in 1984.
Haraway talks of primatology as a genealogy; a family history of sorts, with we humans almost parallel with our distant primate cousins, and branches stretching back to our common ancestors. We occupy the primate order, after all, and the family Hominidae. As Haraway describes,
“A geneology is an origin story; it assigns positions from which meaning flows. Primatology is inherently a geneological practice in this sense. Within the field of primatology, all the possible positions for the meaning of being female can be and are being generated. Primatology is a field for contesting basic categories structured by the axis or net of sex-gender. The possible meanings of being female in the primate order are at the center of primatological discourse. The constantly ambiguous, equivocating objects and boundaries of primatology are made for this discourse. What is female to woman? female to females? woman to women? What is at stake, and for whom, in recording the intimate details of the lives of female and male baboons and chimpanzees?”
The heritage of our primate family is unique. We share DNA with many mammals but none so much as the apes and monkeys who also inhabit our taxonomic family tree. This is why Haraway talks of our origin story; an evolutionary history of the wider family Hominidae is our own history, and so through this lens we (for better or worse) examine what it means to be human.
One of the more prominent ways this happens is through the examination of sexually dimorphic behaviour, that is “where the two [biological] sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs”. (source) Early primatologists, in other words, looked to the study of primates for answers about human gendered behaviour. As Haraway explains,
“Animals, especially the boundary animals which primates are pre-eminently, serve as special objects for understanding the origins of socialized sex, almost gendered sex. This is serious business in the politics of domination and liberation, in which the source of energy, the self-replenishing luminescence outside the dead light of reason, must be located — and appropriated in another chapter in the story of domination.”
Actually, Haraway is telling us not only that humans have looked to our shared Hominidae origin story to explain gendered behaviour, but to justify acts and cultures of domination, even those located in a different time and place on the family tree. In this way, primatology becomes an origin story crucial not only as a perceived source of enlightenment where human behaviour is concerned, but as a weapon wielded against the Hominidae female, an objective, ‘scientific’ rationale for sexually dimorphic oppression.
The personal, the emotional, the sexual.
There is much I will explore in this assignment: the ‘waves’ of primatology, the early andocentric biases, the pivotal moments in primatological discourse, and the key contributions of women scientists and field workers. To explore the short history of primatology as a unique field of study provides a necessary backdrop to the question of the importance of the contribution of women. The validation of the female perspective is close to my heart, and explained well in this quote by Nancy Tuana as she considers a “re-visioning” of the scientific methodologies underpinning primatological study. Speaking of Evelyn Fox Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science, Tuana describes how the book attempts to
“…[restore] legitimacy to devalued aspects of human experience traditionally associated with the female perspective: the personal, the emotional, the sexual.”
(This book is now on my reading list.)
The ‘reason’ for gendered behaviour?
For me, there is a more fundamental question that reflexive, feminist discourse may potentially support and enable within the primatological debate: why do we seek the scientific (i.e. ‘true’) explanation for human gendered behaviour? Many scholars have noted (and sociologists know) that human gendered behaviour is intricate, complex, and far from objective. The positivist method is unlikely to provide an adequate toolkit for deconstructing what is likely to be both a cultural and evolutionary construct. But even if it could, we should ask why this ethological question is such a Holy Grail quest within the field of primatology.
As we become progressively more aware of the fluidity of human gender, we can ask what discoveries may be found through studying primates regardless of sexual organs or gender. At the very least, we must shine a clear light on our complex human biases, our own culturally constructed roles as man, woman, or non-binary. If we do not understand the constructed human identity and its effect on the science we do, how can we hope to untangle our interpretations of the behaviour of our taxonomic cousins? What value might be found in encouraging scientists and field workers to transgress or ignore gender boundaries in primates? And even given this, is it appropriate to look to primate behaviour to ‘explain’ any of our human primate behaviours? If not, does this necessarily mean that the study of primates and their behaviours is unimportant?
In this assignment I will look to numerous female scholars: Donna Haraway, Nancy Tuana, Lynda Marie Fedigan, Susan Sperling, Patricia Gowaty, Jane Lancaster, and many more. I am curious to witness the evolution of the field of primatology, and to look to the future, at possible ways in which primatology continues to engender (pun unintended) the political.
Perhaps we must, unavoidably, regard the study of non-human primates as the tool by which we can retrospectively construct the human origin story. If so, I believe that the tale will evolve alongside our own unpicking of the current human story, and I hope that both will break free from damaging human biases rooted in frameworks of oppression, and lead to a more liberated and liberating examination of the family Hominidae.