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1. Debra Durham - 2 January 2008

Thanks for a great post. Very interesting. While I don’t see eye to eye with you on every count, I agree with you on many. Especially here:

“The error usually goes something like this:

Step 1. Look at primates to learn about Humans. (fine so far)
Step 2. Because primates do something, that must explain human behavior. (WTF?)
3. Draw normative conclusions about Humans from primate behavior. (STFU!)”

That is one kind of error that can trip us up. One of the reasons it bothers me is because it ignores the diversity within the primate order and it assumes that the categories we use to describe them (e.g. gregarious, monogamous, despotic, etc) are fixed and value-free. The other reason it bothers me is because there is a tendency to use such explanations in arguments that smack of determinism (chimpanzees engage in inter-troop warfare –>War= natural –> war= human / ok).

Where there are species differences between a human and a baboon, for example, there is also a tendency to frame primates outside of Homo as “less than” human rather than “different from” human. Shrouded in the fog of scala naturae it’s even harder to make sense of what the sciences or social sciences have to show us about behavior, the mind, etc.

The flip side of the coin, of course, is what to do about anthropodenial (e.g. Bradshaw, G.A. , & R. M. Sapolsky. (2006). Mirror, Mirror. American Scientist, 94 (6) November-December) and the strange bias toward unidirectional inference that appears common in studies that compare humans to other animals (See Bradshaw, G.A. and B.L. Finlay. (2005). Natural symmetry. Nature 435:149). These issues have something to tell us about science, statistics and ethics.

Also – for an interesting article relevant to 2c, I recommend:

Dunbar and Schultz “Evolution and the social brain” Science 7 September 2007:
Vol. 317. no. 5843, pp. 1344 – 1347. (Not sure if ok to post links here so just a DOI for now: 10.1126/science.1145463)

2. Todd - 2 January 2008

Debra,
Thanks a million for the citations! I’m a sociologist and have only recently (maybe 2 years or so) been reading in evolution and neurology in trying to figure out a naturalistic social theory for sociologists; and my experience in primatology is exceptionally shallow (literally having read only 1 thing by de Waals, one by diamond and one by sapolsky).

I’d appreciate to know where you disagree with what I’ve said. It would be really helpful to me. Are you a primatologist?


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