Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Primate Diaries Has Moved to Scientific American

I'm very pleased to announce that my long period of exile has come to an end. The Primate Diaries has now found a permanent home at Scientific American's new blog network. I will be joining some amazing writers (some of whom even hosted this blog) and I encourage everyone to head over and look around.

You can access my new site at:

I would like to thank everyone who supported my experiment in migratory writing this last year, especially those who offered to let me crash on their blog. Thank you John, David, Chris, Sheril, Jennifer, Greg, Carin, Deborah, Krystal, Brian, Christopher, Michael, Barbara, Madhu, Raymond, Zinjanthropus, as well as Bob, Jeremy, Greg, Kevin, Pal, and Jason who offered to host but whom I haven't had the time to write for yet (but the posts are still on the way!). I would like to return the favor and host any and all of you who'd like to guest post at my new digs.

But most importantly I would like to thank my readers. Your comments, questions, as well as your criticisms have poked and prodded me (sometimes unwillingly) into being a better writer. I look forward to the continuing conversation as The Primate Diaries puts down some roots and settles into the comforts of home.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ariel Casts Out Caliban: Bonobos, "Killer-Apes" and Human Origins

In place of a guest post this week I'm very pleased to announce my cover article in the latest edition of Times Higher Education.


The concept of the 'killer-ape' offers a pessimistic reflection of humanity and its genesis, but the latest research shows that a primate species whose success is based on mutual aid and pleasure, not violence, is a better model for human origins. Eric Michael Johnson considers the better bonobos of our nature.

"Nature never intends the generation of a monster."

John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry, in debate with Thomas Hobbes (1645)

In 1607, after being held captive by the Portuguese in West Africa's Congo Basin for nearly 18 years, the English sailor Andrew Battell returned home with lurid tales of "ape monsters". The larger of the two creatures Battell described, according to the edited volume later published by travel writer Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, "is in all proportion like a man", but "more like a giant in stature...and has a man's face, hollow-eyed, with long haire upon his browes". These marauding beasts "goe many together, and kill many (villagers)...they are so strong, that ten men cannot hold one of them". Battell's narrative, much of which was received second hand and sure to be highly imaginative, was nevertheless one of Western society's earliest introductions to our evolutionary cousins, the great apes.

Simia quam similis turpissima bestia nobis ("How similar the ape, this ugliest of beasts, is to ourselves"). What the Roman poet Ennius presented in the 2nd century BC was a refrain that could be heard repeatedly during the subsequent two millennia whenever Europeans encountered this being that so threatened the line separating human and animal. The common depiction of non-human primates in the West as representations of sin and the Devil, wickedness, frivolity, impulsivity and violence would ultimately say more about our own discomfort at being reminded of similar qualities in ourselves than their nature.

But it is the depiction of the ape as monster that is even more revealing. When Bishop John Bramhall challenged Thomas Hobbes' position on free will in 1645 by insisting that "Nature never intends the generation of a monster," he wasn't referring to apes but to what today we would call a mutant; something fundamentally unnatural and far removed from ourselves. For Battell, and those who came after him, to use this term repeatedly for describing great apes suggests that the experience was so profoundly disturbing that the only recourse was to relegate them to some narrow island of the mind where any similarities with humans could be ignored. The ape, to adopt lines from Shakespeare written at the time, was "a perfidious ... howling ... abominable monster", little more than "a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick".

Read the rest of the article here and stay tuned for the next edition of the The Primate Diaries in Exile tour.

Perelman, P., Johnson, W., Roos, C., Seuánez, H., Horvath, J., Moreira, M., Kessing, B., Pontius, J., Roelke, M., Rumpler, Y., Schneider, M., Silva, A., O'Brien, S., & Pecon-Slattery, J. (2011). A Molecular Phylogeny of Living Primates PLoS Genetics, 7 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1001342

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Allure of Gay Cavemen

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Neuron Culture at Wired:

In 1993 the reputable German weekly Der Spiegel reported a rumor that Otzi, the 5,300-year-old frozen mummy discovered in the Otztal Alps two years earlier, contained evidence of the world's earliest known homosexual act. "In Otzi's Hintern," wrote the editors, referring to the Iceman's hinterland, "Spermien gefunden worden." (If you require a translation, chances are you didn't want to know anyway.) The rumor quickly spread on computer bulletin boards as the recently unveiled World Wide Web inaugurated a new age in the free flow of misinformation. The origin of the rumor, as Cecil Adams discovered, turns out to have been an April Fool's prank published in the Austrian gay magazine Lambda Nachrichten. The joke about our ancient uncle being penetrated deep in the Alps was then picked up by other periodicals, but with a straight face.

Twenty years later it appears that little has changed. Last week Czech archaeologist Katerina Semradova spoke with the Iranian news service PressTV about their ongoing excavation of a burial in Prague that contained evidence suggesting a "third gender" identity. Dated to approximately 4,700 years ago, the archaeologists found what they said was a man from the Corded Ware culture who had been buried in a way that was highly uncharacteristic for the time. Typically, males from this Chalcolithic society were interred laying on their right side facing east while women were placed on their left side facing west. Accompanying the bodies would be gender specific grave goods that the deceased individual would presumably need in the afterlife (weapons or tools in the case of males and jewelry or domestic jugs for women).

"We found one very specific grave of a man lying in the position of a woman, without gender specific grave goods, neither jewelry nor weapons," said Semradova. "[I]t could be a member of a so-called third gender, which were people either with different sexual orientation or transsexuals or just people who identified themselves differently from the rest of the society."

Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.

Will Roscoe (2000). Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, Palgrave Macmillan.

Joan Roughgarden (2004). Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, University of California Press.

Friday, March 11, 2011

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

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by A Primate of Modern Aspect:

A new study in the journal Nature has generated a great deal of titillation this week as Cory McLean and colleagues have revealed a sequence of DNA that promotes these penis spines, a sequence that humans appear to have lost. The genetic mechanism involved has already been explained extremely well by Ed Yong and John Hawks. However, the interpretation of what the loss of this DNA reveals about human evolution is perhaps the most provocative claim and has resulted in a flurry of media attention.

"Simplified penile morphology tends to be associated with monogamous reproductive strategies in primates," write the authors. According to their study, the loss of these spines would have resulted in a reduction in sexual sensation (because the spines are thought to be connected to nerve endings) and would therefore have allowed our ancestors to engage in more prolonged sexual activity that the authors associate with pairbonding and the evolution of social monogamy (citing Owen Lovejoy's Ardipithecus ramidus paper from 2009 as a model).

As Nature News wrote in their summary of these results:

It has long been believed that humans evolved smooth penises as a result of adopting a more monogamous reproductive strategy than their early human ancestors. Those ancestors may have used penile spines to remove the sperm of competitors when they mated with females. However, exactly how this change came about is not known.

Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.

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

Friday, February 4, 2011

Touching Death

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by The Prancing Papio:

There is something intensely animal about our relationship with the dead. As an atheist I don’t feel particular reverence or awe at the site of a cadaver. It mostly just creeps me out. But even religious believers, those who should be comfortable with the idea that a dead body retains no trace of the person they once knew, also seem to have trouble letting go of what St. Paul called “confidence in the flesh.” In funerary observances around the world cadavers are regularly touched, kissed, washed, anointed with oils, bedaubed with ceremonial makeup, carted to sacred ground, entombed with their clothes or belongings, and generally treated in death as if their body were going on a different journey than miasmic decay.

However, as is often the case where human universals are concerned, looking to similar behaviors in other animals can be especially instructive. For example, a study that has just been released in the American Journal of Primatology has captured the most complete process to date of what could only be described as mourning behavior in nonhuman primates. Katherine Cronin and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute, Gonzaga University, and the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia have documented a case where a chimpanzee mother faced what for most of us would be an unthinkable horror: the death of her child.

Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.

Cronin, K., van Leeuwen, E., Mulenga, I., & Bodamer, M. (2011). Behavioral response of a chimpanzee mother toward her dead infant American Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20927

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Reconciliation Ecology:

The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California's San Joaquin river. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern Ahwahnee mountains causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below.

All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear would have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.

Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage had used smouldering logs from the Indians' own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic and the crucial element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in the same searing glow that was now descending from the rocky peaks above.

"Charge, boys! Charge!!" bellowed the gravelly voice of Lieutenant Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of foot falls now joined the sound of crackling pine. Thirty men, many wearing identical red shirts and crude suspenders purchased at the mining supply depot, dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles.

Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.


Scholl AE, & Taylor AH (2010). Fire regimes, forest change, and self-organization in an old-growth mixed-conifer forest, Yosemite National Park, USA. Ecological applications : a publication of the Ecological Society of America, 20 (2), 362-80 PMID: 20405793

Monday, November 22, 2010

Stressing Motherhood: A primatologist discovers the social factors responsible for maternal infanticide. (Scientific American)

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Scientific American:

Throughout history, from the fictional Medea to the tragic reports of modern times, women have taken the lives of their children under a variety of contexts, whether it is to punish the father, escape from the burden of motherhood, or even to protect a child from what they perceive as a fate worse than death. In this regard humans share yet another feature, albeit a tragic one, with nonhuman animals since females in a variety of species have been observed to abandon, abuse, or even kill their own offspring. To stress the importance of motherhood in human societies today, how can we best understand this behavior so that we can better predict, and prevent, its recurrence?

Dario Maestripieri has spent most of his career studying maternal behavior in primates. In particular, he’s focused on the factors that influence a mother’s motivation towards her young. As a professor of Comparative Human Development, Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology, and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago he has enjoyed the kind of cross-disciplinary success that most scientists only dream of. His 153 academic papers and six books have been cited more than a thousand times by scholars (including this one) in many of the world’s top scientific journals. His latest paper is scheduled to be published in early 2011 by the American Journal of Primatology. In it Maestripieri lays out the argument he’s built over the last two decades showing how one of the most serious impacts on maternal behavior, one with potentially lethal results, is so common in modern life as to be nearly invisible: stress.

Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.


Maestripieri, D. (2010). Emotions, stress, and maternal motivation in primates American Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20882