A letter by Dr. Jane Macdonald, as provided by David Taub Bancroft
Illustration by Katie Nyborg
Mr. Simon Newsom
1867 E. Rogella Rd.
K1A 0A9 Canada
Dear Mr. Newsom:
I am writing to protest the article written about me in the latest issue of your journal. The offensively titled “Pretty PhD’s Primate Politics: The Story of Jane Macdonald’s Well-Intentioned Experiment” by Ronald Burke is a work of sensationalistic drivel that stands noticeably out of place in Hypothesis Magazine. I find it hard to believe, in fact, that such garbage should ever have escaped the critical eye of an editor of your stature and stained the good name of your otherwise illuminating periodical. It completely misrepresents my project with the chimpanzees of the Loccuto Wildlife Preserve in Tanzania, portraying me by turn as an empty-headed, naive idealist and an attention hog fraudulently “lusting after grant money.” In truth, I am internationally respected in my field of primatology, and though my project did not go as planned, it was an undeniably worthwhile endeavour based on years of meticulous research. Humanity’s reservoir of scientific understanding is now all the richer as a result of my work.
Why is Mr. Burke so hell-bent on discrediting me? As far as I can make out (assuming generously that his rabid attack contains any logical structure whatsoever), his critique is threefold. First of all, he believes that I am undeserving of what success and esteem I have enjoyed during my career. I can’t help but think that it is at least partly my gender that sours him towards me. Throughout his article, Mr. Burke maintains a tone that is surprisingly sexist for a publication as highly regarded as yours–a tone that I have unfortunately become used to over the years. When I first graduated fromCambridge, primatology was still by and large very much a man’s discipline, and I was not able to contribute to my field in any given place for more than a few months at a time. I spent the dawn of my postgraduate career rotating unpredictably between African field work, zoo research, and assistant professorships all over the world. Far from being, in Mr. Burke’s words, “the latest hog at the trough of pseudoscientific fame, demanding her allotted fifteen minutes,” I undeniably paid my dues.
It was only after the widespread corroboration of the findings of my doctoral thesis that my professional reputation began to soar beyond what most women in the natural sciences could then expect. My idea was quite simple. Child psychologists had long been measuring the innate moral compasses of infants by creating imagined scenarios of right and wrong with puppets. I decided to perform the same experiment on the animal I had fallen in love with during my undergraduate years, the common chimpanzee. In the American zoos where I did my practicum, a number of chimps had been taught sign language. I would arrange to have them watch puppet shows, in which two puppets are shown gathering items of food for themselves in equal amounts. After they finish, one puppet steals a piece of food from the other. I would then instruct the observing chimps by sign language to take food away from just one of the puppets. The vast majority would choose to take from–to punish–the puppet who stole. We have here a clear instance of moral judgement amongst non-human primates.
Over the years that followed my thesis, these experiments were replicated and their findings upheld by countless others in the field, but rather than describing in any detail the chain of research that I initiated, Mr. Burke dismisses my rapid advancement falsely as the product of affirmative action and “liberal guilt.” In fact, a large portion of the foundations, universities, and government agencies that fund scientific research saw genuine promise in my ideas, and I was soon able to secure a number of grants that allowed me to continue my work anywhere in the world. I chose Tanzania’s Loccuto Wildlife Preserve for its relatively unspoilt environment and its single, unified group of roughly thirty chimpanzees with their very limited history of human interaction.
Over time, I gained the trust and acceptance of Loccuto’s chimps and began to teach them American Sign Language. As Mr. Burke correctly observes, this had been done dozens of times in the past with individual chimps in captivity, as well as with bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. But never before had an entire group of wild apes been given the gift of language. Nothing could have prepared me for the scale of our accomplishment. After one year, nearly every chimpanzee became proficient in basic signing. On average, each one was familiar with about seven hundred signs–some nearly twice that. What’s more, as time wore on, many would pass their newfound linguistic prowess on to their offspring.
The logical next step to me seemed obvious, although it proved to be the most controversial move of my career (and the main focus of your magazine’s libellous article). I cannot for the life of me understand why it should have been so. The relationship between ethics and politics has been understood by philosophers ever since Aristotle. We know that chimpanzees are highly moral beings with innate, well-developed convictions, and with the help of sign language, they are able to articulate these convictions and collaborate on them. In other words, we have fertile ground for politics. It was not only the elites amongst Loccuto’s chimps who were given the ability to sign, but all of them. With chimpanzees no less than with humans, language can be a great equalizer and a stepping stone to democracy.
So I formed an Assembly. An Assembly of Equals in which the chimps of the Loccuto Wildlife Preserve could speak and deliberate on a level field, and take part in decision making that impacts the group as a whole. This Assembly was meant to be open to every chimp in the Preserve and serve as an alternative to the hierarchy and violence that had always previously governed chimpanzee societies.
Which brings us to Mr. Burke’s second objection to my project. In a typical excretion from his article, he says: “Notwithstanding the inevitable cultivation of instability and division, Dr. Macdonald had no problem forcing the alien concept of a democratic assembly on an unwilling group of wild chimpanzees. No price was too high for the almighty end of her egotistical self-glorification.”
Far be it for me to disrupt so fine a work of fiction as Mr. Burke’s, but I must say that I did not force the Assembly of Equals on anyone. I merely submitted it one day as a gentle suggestion to Primo, the alpha male of the group. Primo’s leadership had been established many years before, after the overthrow of his unpopular predecessor. At first, not every member of the group was convinced that Primo was the right one to follow, but no other contenders were forthcoming. His rule eventually became unquestioned and remained so by the time of my arrival on the scene. I was initially surprised by the acceptance with which Primo greeted my idea for the Assembly, given its somewhat subversive nature. But he had always taken to sign language with tremendous enthusiasm and apparently looked forward to the opportunity provided by the Assembly for its institutionalization.
On the morning of the Assembly’s inaugural sitting, I set up a cluster of thirty-four children’s school desks in a clearing–one for each of Loccuto’s chimpanzees–and rang the bell which Primo and I had arranged as the signal for him to gather the group together. But the only individuals to enter the clearing and sit down were Primo and four of his high-ranking male hangers-on.
Realizing that I had not been specific enough when discussing my plans, I signed, “Where’s the rest of the group?”
“We don’t need them,” Primo signed in response. “My friends and I can talk and make decisions all by ourselves.”
“But the Assembly of Equals is supposed to be for everyone,” I insisted, and then added, “–including females.”
At this point Primo flew into a rage. Chimpanzee society, we must remember, is very patriarchal in nature. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it’s just how they are. That being said, I was not ready to allow this feature of their culture to impede my plans so easily, and I persisted in defending the principles of the Assembly in the face of Primo’s threats and posturing. I told him to leave the clearing and return only when accompanied by every single male and female chimpanzee of the group. After several more minutes of making a scene, he finally left and came back roughly half an hour later with nineteen other chimps, four of whom were female.
Mr. Burke saves the majority of his article’s mockery and derision for the episode that followed, and I can almost understand. I was not at my best in the way that I reacted. I should have remembered that as a scientist and the only human participating directly in the Assembly, I had a duty to show patience and understanding when faced with what in retrospect was obviously Primo’s clumsy attempt at good-willed compromise. But when I had asked for universal participation, he gave me less than 60%. When I had wanted parity between the sexes, he gave me a group in which females made up barely 20%. I felt as though if I allowed this act of disobedience to go unnoticed, Primo and the rest of the group would only continue to ignore my authority. So I signed angrily to all the chimps present that the first sitting of the Assembly of Equals was cancelled, and then turned around and walked off.
I understand now that this reaction was wrong. However, a single bad day is not grounds to call off an entire program of research. I believed that there remained within my project considerable potential for scientific discovery, and I am still convinced today that I was right. So I adjusted my expectations and I tried again.
Over the next few months, the Assembly of Equals gathered many times. No sitting was ever attended by every one of Loccuto’s chimps, nor did females ever reach the 25% mark, but Primo did appear to be taking care not to anger me excessively. The discussions that took place in the Assembly were truly inspiring. To see Primo having to defend his decisions in the face of questions from even the lowest ranking members of the group made me feel that every last effort and sacrifice was worthwhile.
Without a doubt, the most common topic of discussion was the distribution of meat. According to long established convention, whenever a few males would go hunting for red colobus monkeys or bush babies, nearly all group members would eat, but only in line with a strict hierarchy. Primo would get first choice as well as the largest share, followed by his allies and favourite females. Only after these elites had had their fill would the rest of the group get whatever scraps were left over. With the advent of the Assembly, this arrangement began to face increasing challenge. There rapidly emerged a sharp division whenever the Assembly gathered, between an Alpha faction composed of Primo and his followers, and a Beta faction in opposition composed of undernourished lower-status individuals. Each faction eventually began to sit together in the Assembly and enforced a strict conformity of opinion amongst its members.
This sectarianism might not appeal to Mr. Burke, but I did not create it; it merely reflected the firmly entrenched class system that already defined Loccuto’s chimpanzee society. And let us not be so quick to disregard the Assembly’s positive impact on the group’s social regimentation. In order to prevent his Alphas from being outnumbered in sittings, Primo dramatically expanded the ranks of his well-fed allies from a small minority of the overall group to a razor-thin majority. As a result, I now saw a larger percentage of Loccuto’s chimps receiving adequate nourishment than ever before. Unfortunately, the meat for the newly enriched inevitably came out of the mouths of those who remained Betas. These unlucky individuals now had to make do with even smaller quantities of leftovers. The poor, in other words, got poorer.
Under these conditions, resentment between the factions grew with every sitting of the Assembly, and the chimps did not always comport themselves in a civil manner. As much as I tried to encourage them to use their words and behave in an orderly fashion, they developed the habit of pounding violently on their desks as an adaptation of the common chimpanzee threat display of banging on tree trunks. And this was nothing compared to the one particularly spirited debate that ended with several chimps from opposing factions throwing their feces at one another, as Mr. Burke notes gleefully in his article. But as anyone who has spent time and effort studying chimpanzees knows, there is nothing unusual about this behaviour–with or without an Assembly of Equals. Before the next sitting, I simply rearranged the desks in the clearing into two rows that were far enough apart as to be beyond what I estimated as typical feces-throwing range.
Mr. Burke’s third major charge against me and my Assembly is that my primary goal–inspired by a “misguided anthropomorphism”–had always been nothing short of overthrowing Primo. To support his claim, he relies entirely on the regrettable events of the last meeting of the Assembly. A revolt did indeed take place during this sitting, but I played no part in its planning or execution. It appeared to have been a genuinely spontaneous uprising, and while I find such sincere expressions of collective will inspiring, the brunt of Mr. Burke’s allegation remains perfectly false.
On that final morning, I rang the bell three times as usual to gather everyone together. All the chimps participating that day entered the clearing and sat at their desks–the Alphas filing into one row, the Betas into the other. Right away, they settled into their favourite topic of debate. The Betas repeated their position that meat ought to be distributed equally to all members of the group regardless of rank, while the Alphas responded with their official line that such redistribution would run counter to the order that had defined their group for as long as anyone could remember. They went on like this for a while, back and forth, before the discussion took an unexpected turn. Tommy, a particularly vocal Beta male, addressed the rank-and-file Alphas directly with the simple exhortation: “You should all get as much meat as Primo.”
For just a moment, the desk banging and chatter that normally permeated the Assembly fell to complete silence. The Betas had never before expressed their opposition to Locutto’s inequality in quite those terms. In what I thought was a striking vindication of my doctoral thesis and everything I had been working towards in my career, Tommy did not just express his own grievance, but reached out and showed empathy towards those individuals who sat across the factional divide. Sure, the Alphas got more than the Betas, but they also got significantly less than Primo himself. This was a major breakthrough in the history of the Assembly, and I knew right away that the terms of debate would never be the same.
Just as quickly as the noise had ceased, it erupted once more in a terrific frenzy of ear-splitting vocalizations. Other Betas reiterated Tommy’s argument and urged the Alphas to recognize that they too were being exploited. The Alphas made no counterarguments, but screeched wildly and pounded their desks with indignant zeal.
“Stand up and join our side,” signed some of the Betas at last. “Join us so that Primo will let us all have the same amount of meat!” It was only then that I understood what they were trying to accomplish. The Betas didn’t just want food; they wanted power. They were trying to topple Primo, not by violent struggle–the usual means of regime change in chimpanzee society–but by poaching some of the more peripheral members of his faction and engineering a peaceful transfer of leadership. All they needed were a few Alphas.
Far from being the nefarious puppet master of Mr. Burke’s article, orchestrating rebellion from behind the scenes, I was as surprised as anyone when a handful of Alphas tentatively stood up. Primo’s closest allies were quick to react. They jumped up and physically restrained the wayward Alphas, returning them to their seats. I began yelling and signing furiously that there was to be no force, but no one was paying me any attention. The Alpha inner circle understood very well that if they lost even a few low-ranking members to the Betas, they would lose their majority, and with it, inevitably, their leadership and privilege. There was no way they could maintain an increasingly polarizing policy of unequal meat distribution if they were outnumbered. But Primo’s henchmen were too few to fully contain the revolt. Accompanied by a magnificent upswell of celebratory Beta desk banging, three Alphas–Linda, Martin, and Scotty–eluded their pursuers, crossed to the other side, and took their place amongst their erstwhile opponents.
I could no longer make sense of the chaos that ensued. Having completely abandoned their sign language, the chimps screamed ferociously at each other. They puffed up their coats, beat their chests, and overturned desks in full-on threat displays. I was terrified that they would soon resort to violence, and that some might even turn their aggression my way in spite of all I had done for them. Unsure of how I could possibly restore calm to the situation, I was relieved to see Primo–who had so far remained mostly silent–begin to climb to the top of his desk and stand up as tall as he could. A hush gradually fell over the chimps of the Assembly as they focused their attention on him. He stared sternly at his subjects, slowly raised his arms, and signed authoritatively, “Everyone, leave the clearing and never come back. The Assembly of Equals is dismissed.”
With this conclusive statement–so jarringly painful to my enquiring eye–my experiment was brought to a close. Loccuto’s chimps did as they were told and returned to their tree cover with not a word of protest from even the most rebellious amongst them. Over the following days, I pleaded with Primo to reconvene the Assembly, but he could not be swayed. He felt that the Betas’ attempt to bring Alphas over to their side was an unfair “dirty trick,” apparently not realizing that he had relied on the same tactic to establish his majority in the first place. In any case, Primo’s dissolution of the Assembly of Equals was final.
It’s true that I was caught off guard by the abruptness of my project’s end. I only wanted what was best for them–a more equitable society with power widely dispersed rather than concentrated at the top. But events in the Preserve did not unfold as I had hoped. Were my expectations distorted, as Mr. Burke claims, by my “unscientific propensity to overly identify with the chimps” and to “judge them by human standards”? I admit that I may have been pulled slightly in that direction by the affection with which I came to regard the subjects of my research. From their self-awareness to their tool use to the way they raise their young, so much of their behaviour–to say nothing of their genetic makeup–speaks to the shared experience of our two species. But in truth, we’re not the same. No freedom-loving human society would tolerate a leader who, like Primo, so stubbornly resisted the march of progress, so shamelessly denied the masses their rightful voice.
What Mr. Burke does not seem to understand, however, is that scientists don’t come to conclusions like these by mere idle speculation. We gain our insights out in the field by means of empirical observation. It is the easiest thing in the world to journey backwards through each step of my experiment after it has already been completed, pointing out along the way the factors that led to the Assembly’s disintegration. But a hypothesis cannot be rejected until it has first been tested. Like all scientists, I started off with a hunch–a hunch whose present falsification does not in any way render the data I gathered a waste. I continue to stand behind the inestimable contribution my work has provided the field of primatology.
Owing to the distortions of Mr. Burke’s article, the readers of Hypothesis Magazine have been denied the context in which to understand this. Therefore, for the sake of journalistic balance if nothing else, I expect you, Mr. Newsom, to print this letter in its entirety in the next issue of your periodical. The full story must be told.
Dr. Jane Macdonald
Loccuto Wildlife Preserve
Dr. Jane Macdonald, recipient of last year’s Kim Campbell Women in Science Award, is one of the world’s foremost chimpanzee experts.
Having studied anthropology and political science during her undergraduate years, she received a PhD in zoology on full scholarship
from Cambridge University, and has spent almost all her ensuing years working and living in Tanzania’s Loccuto Wildlife Preserve.
David Taub Bancroft is a writer and blogger based in Vancouver, Canada. He is currently working very, very slowly on his first novel. Writing is hard. You may find his work in The Montreal Review, Zouch Magazine & Miscellany, backofthebook.ca, and rabble.ca.
Katie Nyborg’s art, plus information regarding hiring her, can be found at http://katiedoesartthings.tumblr.com/
This short story first appeared in The Montreal Review and Zouch Magazine & Miscellany.