The Assembly of Equals

A letter by Dr. Jane Macdonald, as provided by David Taub Bancroft
Illustration by Katie Nyborg

Mr. Simon Newsom
News Editor
Hypothesis Magazine
1867 E. Rogella Rd.
Ottawa, ON
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.

The Assembly of Equals

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.

To read the rest of this story, check out the Mad Scientist Journal: Winter 2013 collection.

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 &, and

Katie Nyborg’s art, plus information regarding hiring her, can be found at

This short story first appeared in The Montreal Review and Zouch Magazine & Miscellany.

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