Department of English

Fall 2004 Edition

Political Apes?

Joseph Carpenter
Expository 2010 Winner

A primatologist sits quietly and observes. He carefully documents his observations just as he has been conditioned to do. Through years of training, the primatologist learned how to record the behavior of primates without influencing the observations. He meticulously records every interaction between the apes. Once all of the data is collected, the researcher interprets his findings and publishes them for others in the field to learn from. The interpretation of these findings should be non-biased, but unfortunately observer bias often taints scientific discoveries.

Scientific bias can take many forms. The form of bias I will address is that of political bias; the politics to which I refer are those that reflect the ideologies (common ideas) of a group such as liberals or conservatives. I am not going to argue whether politics should play a role in scientific research, for I agree that politics should play no part in science. However, no matter how much we oppose something, we can’t necessarily stop it from occurring. Scientists are trained to observe. Whether in the laboratory or in the field, a good researcher should document everything. Unfortunately, researchers often omit data that seems unimportant to the overall outcome of an experiment. These omissions result in bias by removing the ability for other scientists to draw conclusions based upon all the facts. Science covers the broad field of knowledge that deals with observed facts and the relationships among those facts. The relationships among facts are determined by humans and are, therefore, subject to bias.

Frans de Waal’s book, The Ape and the Sushi Master, strongly reflects a liberal feminist agenda. He spends most of the book focused on the success of a female-dominant sexual society. Frans de Waal writes almost exclusively about the bonobo, a close relative of the chimpanzee. The existence and unique character of the bonobo struggle to find acceptance with some human societies of the world. De Waal attributes this to “puritanism.” According to De Waal, a puritan society equates sex with sin and fights hard to control sexual urges. De Waal implies that puritans are misguided, and furthermore, that sexual openness is appealing and normal. A bonobo society would be quite the opposite of a puritan society. De Waal argues that a society’s reluctance to accept bonobos stems from political reasons. De Waal’s research of captive bonobos presents a society dominated by the females of the species, in stark contrast to the typical male-dominated human society represented by chimpanzees whose society is violent and male dominated. He makes the argument that “the bonobo’s female-centered society is inconvenient for those who are invested in male-biased evolutionary scenarios” (146). He continues that the bonobo has not been given due attention because female dominance in such a close relative of the human could require reconsideration of underlying assumptions that apes naturally and biologically evolved into a patriarchal society. According to de Waal, those scientists and members of the public who are invested in a notion of humans as naturally inclined to resolve conflict through aggression and violence uphold chimps as the biological model of human culture.

In the book Significant Others, Craig Stanford brings into light de Waal’s political agendas. Stanford argues that researchers of the bonobo, such as de Waal, fail to acknowledge the difference between captive and wild bonobo behavior. In the wild, bonobos behave much more similarly to the chimpanzee, especially in sexual and carnivorous activity. Studies of wild bonobos show that females are “no more erotic than their chimpanzee counterparts” (Stanford 28). Why would de Waal fail to acknowledge differences between wild and captive bonobos? Upon closer reading of de Waal’s statements, it becomes clear that he does not deny differences, but downplays them readily. He claims that there is no relevant difference between how captive and wild bonobos behave. De Waal immediately follows this statement by using examples from the field where female bonobos use intercourse to obtain food from the males. However, this behavior is quite different than the dominant behavior of females in captivity who take what they want from the males. Stanford also points out that extensive meat eating and meat-sharing has been observed in wild bonobo groups, but most primatologists, such as de Waal, refer to the bonobo as the “vegetarian” great ape. De Waal’s agendas become more clear when he proposes, “ If one of our closest relatives fails to fit the prevailing views about aggressive males and passive females, one possibility to consider is that the prevailing views are mistaken” (De Waal 148).

Many people not only disagree with the assertion of the effects of politics in science, but also deny the existence of such influence altogether. I agree that there are cases where science is not subjected to political bias, but it is clear from reading de Waal’s book that he is strongly influenced by politics, even as he accuses others of the same charge.

It is the nature of abstract scientific thought to attribute “meaning” to data. As such, the use of the symbols of language is inevitably colored by one’s experience, beliefs, social background, morality and politics. While scientists must constantly strive for true objectivity, as long as the human mind is a product of social experience, the ability to achieve that purity sought by science will be attenuated.