The Primate Diaries

An Academic Love Story

Four years ago today a young researcher at the beginning of his graduate program in primatology sat down with the most intelligent, engaging, and downright beautiful fellow primate he’d ever had the opportunity to share a beer with. Freshly minted with her Master’s degree in women’s studies (emphasizing public policy), our conversation quickly moved to a discussion of evolution and male vs. female strategies. It’s only in hindsight that it seems bizarre to be talking about theories of male promiscuity and female choosiness on a first date. I had recently returned from my first primate field research trip and at the end of our fascinating conversation I asked her, “Do you want to come over and watch my bonobo videos?” (No, they weren’t what you think, mostly just grooming. Mostly.) She did. Little did I know that, four years later, we’d have a baby bonobo of our own.

It’s often difficult for the humanities and the sciences to find a common ground and achieve mutual understanding (and Cthulhu knows we’ve had some intense arguments about the role of biology vs. culture in human life). But after four years I can honestly say that, if not for her, I wouldn’t have understood evolution’s role in human behavior as well as I do because I never would have been forced to challenge my own assumptions. And I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve never mentioned Erin in my blog before (and she doesn’t know I’m doing this now) but as she sleeps in this morning I just wanted to share my nostalgia and express how grateful I am for life’s little accidents. I would also issue a warning against asking someone to watch your bonobo videos on a first date. In a different context I think they might get the wrong idea.

Comments

  1. #1 CPR
    February 28, 2010

    May your bonobo bliss continue forever.

  2. #2 michellespidermonkey
    February 28, 2010

    Hehe glad to know that the bonobo videos went over well. It’s good that it was mostly grooming… When my boyfriend and I had only been together for a couple weeks, our trip to the zoo scandalized him quite a bit… At the bonobo exhibit, I ran into a friend that did her master’s research on female sexual swellings and behavior, and I got into a conversation with her about the stages of sexual swellings and what they look like… and then at the mandrills, there was some flirtation between the male and a female going on, and then they moved out of site… and since I thought something exciting was going to happen, I moved and got a great view of them copulating–and excitedly pointed it out to my bf and friend… My boyfriend turned bright red, and turned around, and said… umm, I don’t need to see that.

    I guess not everyone is quite as excited to see primates copulating as I am… but in my defense, I study a species that is usually pretty secretive about it.

    Anyway, where have you done field research? Was it on bonobos?

  3. #3 EMJ
    February 28, 2010

    I know exactly what you mean. When all the primatology students in my department would get together (the paleoanthropologists not so much) the dinner conversation would always turn to sexual swellings and mating plugs. The boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses at the table would invariably chuckle uncomfortably and play absently with their napkin as they either wondered what the hell they were getting into or kicked themselves for forgetting what happened the last time.

    For my field work, yes, I did my work with bonobos which is what I received my Master’s in. The hypothesis I was testing required controlled conditions so I did my observations at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. After the positive results in this case I sought to expand on this work in DR Congo for my PhD and incorporate my long-term interest in neuroendocrinology. But that was before I started my graduate certificate program in the History and Philosophy of Science and fell in love.

    I was always more blasé about primate copulation myself. But that’s probably because it was such a regular feature of bonobo life. When Erin came to visit me while I was doing my summer research one year she got extremely excited when she first saw bonobo’s going at it. I was eating my sandwich and just shrugged my shoulders, “That’s the fifth time today.”