The Influence of Japanese Primatology

Now that Japanese primatology exists 60 years, it is time for the rest of the primatological community to celebrate, because we owe so much to the pioneers from the East. This is not fully realized by the younger generation, and the older generation still remembers the disparaging remarks made about the way the Japanese scientists worked, which was considered fraught with anthropomorphism and blamed with a lack of rigorous quantification. One Western colleague even told me that as a student he was forbidden to read any of the Japanese papers.

In the meantime, however, Imanishi’s students set out to identify individuals (giving them names or numbers), following them over their lifetime (they knew their kinship relations), and speculating about culture in their animals. All of this is now, of course standard practice, and kinship structure and cultural transmisison have become mainstays of primatology. In the end Japanese primatology won by developing the approach that now everyone uses.

The linked article by Tetsuro Matsuzawa and Bill McGrew, just out in Current Biology, offers some interesting new insights in Imanishi.

Here a picture of a potato washing monkey at Koshima Island (photo: Frans de Waal).

Just to add one anecdote, described in my book The Ape and the Sushi Master (pp. 110-113, which includes a section on Imanishi), here is what happened when a Western “enemy” visited him:

Kinji Imanishi and the Rabid Englishman

“In my Western way, I came to Kyoto, the home of Imanishi and his School seeking the man and his ideas, but I came as an avowed opponent.”
Beverly Halstead, 1984

An eccentric Englishman, who couldn’t resist comparing himself to a Nineteenth Century explorer, landed on an Eastern shore, in 1984. As if possessed, he hammered away day and night on an old typewriter until he had a rather disorganized product in hand: a volume of over two hundred pages. Along with naïve comments on a society that he didn’t seem to like, the rambling text defended Darwin against the dominant Japanese scientist of the day, Kinji Imanishi. All of this was accomplished in a one-month period, thus defying the old saw that in order to write about Japan one needs to stay either three weeks or thirty years.

Beverly Halstead’s colonial attitude was complete: a heavy load of prejudice about the country he was visiting, absence of knowledge about his adversary (all of Imanishi’s important works are in Japanese, a language Halstead admitted not knowing), manipulation by the locals (the author had been invited by left-wing professors out to undermine Imanishi without getting their hands dirty), and earth-shaking cultural discoveries, such as that the Japanese are more individualistic than one might think.

As Westerner, it is impossible to read Halstead’s manuscript – dug up from a Kyoto library – without curling one’s toes in embarrassment, especially realizing that the text subsequently appeared in Japanese. The Englishman didn’t waste time on politeness. At one point, he managed to meet Imanishi in person, an opportunity he used to lecture the 82-year-old Emeritus Professor. After having handed the father of Japanese primatology a gift – a bottle of whisky – he confronted him with a carefully translated document with statements such as “Imanishi’s evolution theory is Japanese in its unreality” and “You see the wood, but the trees are not in focus.” No wonder, Halstead describes Imanishi’s facial expression on this occasion as one of profound regret at having agreed to the encounter.

What could possibly have compelled Halstead to be so rude? Why, upon return to his home land, did he write an article that trashed not only Imanishi’s views but an entire culture? How did Nature even dare to run it with a patronizing opening line such as: “The popularity of Kinji Imanishi’s writings in Japan gives an interesting insight into Japanese society”? If the whole affair provides any insight at all, it is in Halstead’s personality.

The late Beverly Halstead, from the University of Reading in Great Britain, was by training a geologist and paleontologist. Known for Communist sympathies in his early years, he later became a flag-bearer for Darwinism. Once described as “Darwin’s Terrier” (in a play on T. H. Huxley as “Darwin’s Bulldog”), Halstead had a professional life peppered with spectacular quarrels. An obituary in The Independent of May 3, 1991, highlights the nature of his combative attitude: “[He] was never the rebel but the supporter of traditional orthodoxy against what he saw as misplaced enthusiasm for the new.”

I guess, he was the kind of person who sought security in doctrine – any doctrine. We all know the kind: the former Marxist who turns devout Catholic, or the people who escape the grasp of a sect only to become born-again Christians. Halstead was definitely not Christian (“Darwin rendered the entire edifice of Christianity redundant,” he wrote), but clearly thirsted for dogma.

To him, Imanishi’s disagreement with Darwin was blasphemy. He came to set the old man straight, and with him an entire nation that, in his words, was engaged in a peculiar conspiracy to mislead everyone about themselves. The emphasis in Japan on social harmony is pure self-deception, Halstead concluded, because we all know that underneath there must exist incredible competition.

This was an interesting thought coming from a former Communist.

Halstead, L. B. (1984). Kinji Imanishi: The View from the Mountain Top. Unpublished English manuscript in the Kyoto University Library, later published in Japanese.

– Frans de Waal


Chimps Aren’t Chumps

Note: This is a reprint of a recent New York Times article. In light of our recent post, “The Perils of Primate Pets” we thought this article by Steve Ross was worth adding. You can see the original article here.

Chimps Aren’t Chumps
Published: July 21, 2008 – New York Times


You see it on greeting cards and in countless TV programs and commercials: the exaggerated grin on the face of a young chimpanzee, often one that’s wearing sunglasses or a grass skirt. It’s about as common a ploy for laughs as a pie in the face. Generations have been amused by the antics of Bonzo, J. Fred Muggs, Zippy and, more recently, the business-suited chimps of A chimpanzee covering its eyes in embarrassment? What’s not to love?

But this picture, harmless as it might appear, is giving the public the mistaken and even dangerous impression that chimpanzees have a safe and comfortable existence — and nothing could be further from the truth.

A survey that I and several colleagues conducted in 2005 found that one in three visitors to the Lincoln Park Zoo assumed that chimpanzees are not endangered. Yet more than 90 percent of these same visitors understood that gorillas and orangutans face serious threats to their survival. And many of those who imagined chimpanzees to be safe reported that they based their thinking on the prevalence of chimps in advertisements, on television and in the movies.

In reality, chimpanzees face a severe threat in the wild: their numbers have dropped to about 20 percent of what they were a century ago, as their habitat in equatorial Africa is deforested and they are hunted as bushmeat. And once you know this, it can become more difficult to view chimpanzees as silly subhuman caricatures. Consider that chimpanzees share as much as 98 percent of our genetic makeup. They make and use tools, recognize and identify hundreds of individuals in their groups and learn from others skills like termite fishing. Of course, the reverse is also true: we are 98 percent chimpanzee. Would we condone putting funny clothes on human children so that we could laugh at the way they look like subhuman buffoons?

A progressive society should weigh the moral costs and benefits of practices like these. Misrepresentations of chimpanzees may not be as repugnant as racism, bigotry or sexism. But they can still serve as a benchmark for our society’s moral progress.

The good news is that a growing number of companies, including Honda, Puma and Subaru, have pledged to stop the use of primates in advertisements. The journal Science recently stopped its promotional campaign featuring chimpanzees in hats reading the magazine. That two consecutive Super Bowls have gone by without a major ad campaign featuring a chimpanzee is reason for optimism. Sometimes, success has to be measured in small increments.

Steve Ross is the supervisor of behavioral and cognitive research at the Lester Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

You can see the original article here.

The Perils of Primate Pets

Last week, ABC Primetime aired a segment about people keeping capuchin monkeys as pets, primarily as surrogate children. Though we make it clear on our website that Living Links in no way condones private ownership of primates, we would like to take a moment to reiterate this point.

For a summary of the ABC segment, click here.

First, primates are wild animals and will never be domesticated like cats and dogs. The process of domestication happens over many generations, not over the lifetime of one individual. A pet monkey will always be a wild animal, no matter how docile they appeared as an infant.

Second, while many monkeys are small and may appear “childlike,” they mature into adults in a few short years. Many people purchase monkeys as a sort of “child replacement” after their own children have left the house, assuming that the monkey will fill the space their children left, while being less responsibility than a human child. The rationale many give for purchasing a monkey instead of having a child is that 1) they do not have time for a human child or 2) they do not like that their own children grew up. Monkey children too require enormous amounts of time and grow up much faster than a human. Humans tend to carry their children with them for years. However, monkeys are often carried by their monkey mothers for about one year. After which they are able to move around on their own and are resistant to unwanted attention. In reviewing video clips of the ABC segment, the monkeys were often trying to pull away and biting at their human mother to escape. Being constantly held or contained is foreign to a wild monkey, even one that is raised in a human home.

A further complication in the monkey life span is that monkeys, particularly males, can become quite aggressive after reaching sexual maturity, something many owners have discovered after being attacked by their pet. This aggression is a natural behavior and a further reason why monkeys, and any other wild animal, do not make good pets. It is dangerous both to the monkey and the humans around them. Click here to see some rather graphic pictures of what can happen when pet monkeys are aggressive toward their owners.

In every species, one of the sexes leaves the social group in which they were born after reaching sexual maturity. It is no surprise then, when an adult male capuchin turns on its human family, as their natural instinct is to leave the group. And while they are smaller than a human, monkeys are much faster and capable of inflicting serious harm with their nails and teeth. Many monkey owners who have experienced the pain of this natural aggression have resorted to extreme measures to keep their monkey as a pet. They remove all of the monkey’s teeth and possibly even the nails. This is one of the most disturbing realities of private monkey ownership. It is ludicrous to claim that a monkey is a surrogate child while removing its teeth and nails. This would never be allowed in a human child, so why for a surrogate monkey child? While you may be protecting yourself, ask yourself why you need protecting. Biting is a very natural monkey behavior, something that they regularly do to others in their group, even their own mother, as a way to express disapproval or assert their dominance.

Third, people need to be aware of how monkeys are brought into the pet trade industry. If they are bred in the US, the mothers are darted (sedated) and the infant ripped off to be sold as a pet. We are well aware of the deep and long lasting psychological damage that is inflicted upon orphaned human children and the results are similar in non-human primates. One can only imagine what the result would be if not only removed from their mother, but from all contact with their own species. In order to develop normally, a monkey must have contact with members of their species and ideally their mother. Infants who are removed from their social group early often develop abnormal behaviors, such as rocking and may even inflict harm to themselves (self-injurious behavior).

A capuchin whose teeth have been removed by its owner.

The situation is even worse when monkeys are imported from countries where they are indigenous. Pet traders will go into a forest to get baby monkeys. The mother and any others who attempt to interfere, are often killed when removing a dependent infant. One of our graduate students, Colleen Gault, is currently in Costa Rica studying groups of white-faced capuchins. Over the past 4 years they have lost several mother-offspring pairs. While they have not directly witnessed the poaching of these individuals, no other adults have disappeared during that time, making the particular disappearance of females with dependent offspring quite suspect. For every infant that is brought into the pet trade, the mother and others in the group likely lost their lives in the process. In addition, not every infant survives, so for all that do make it to sale, several other individuals have died. For those studying monkeys in their natural environment, it is upsetting to spend years following individuals, putting together life histories, only to have their animals’ lives end at the hands of a poacher because someone thought it would be cute to have a baby monkey. And while it is illegal to import primates into the United States, the demand for them as pets continues to promote the capture of primates in the wild.

Lastly, there are not enough sanctuaries equipped to take in all of the privately owned monkeys that are eventually given up by their human family when they realize they can no longer care for them. Most of the sanctuaries that take in pet primates are at full capacity and have waiting lists. With the average lifespan of a monkey being 30 years, very few on the waiting list will ever get in. Who knows what the families will resort to if they are already at the point of surrendering their animal, but unable to find a place to retire them to. Often the animal is confined to a cage and given little attention, and is essentially abandoned, resulting in long-term psychological damage. Unfortunately, students interested in primate behavior are unable to study the primates at these sanctuaries because there is very little normal behavior exhibited by the monkeys after being raised in isolation from members of their own species. It is nearly impossible to rehabilitate these individuals to living with other monkeys after being deprived of appropriate social models. This also puts enormous strain on the people who work at these sanctuaries as they are not dealing with normal primates, but ones who are suffering from years of abuse and isolation.

While we primarily focused on monkeys, the pet trade industry is a serious problem for all primates, including the great apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. The trauma and suffering described above is true for all primate species, and the apes can live twice as long as monkeys, up to 60 years. At least 1 in 4 of the 625 species of primates are endangered and are on the verge of extinction. A list of the 25 most critically endangered primates can be found here: … s-list.htm
Unfortunately, many of the species listed are found in people’s homes and in the entertainment industry, having been purchased and imported illegally, causing irreversible damage to these dwindling populations. The bushmeat trade also contributes to the pet trade industry because many infants are left orphaned and then sold at local markets as pets.

Again, the members of the Living Links Center do not condone private ownership of primates and this list only touches on a few reasons why this is the case. Primates are indeed amazing creatures, but we should do everything we can to preserve them in the wild, and keep them out of private homes.

A capuchin in its natural habitat.

For more information on the pet trade industry and the bushmeat trade, please see:

The Problem with Pet Monkeys

The Perils of Keeping Monkeys as Pets – National Geographic

Fact and Fiction: Monkeys and Apes as Pets – The Humane Society

Bushmeat Crisis Task Force

Bushmeat – The Human Society

Inside the Exotic Animal Trade

Primate sanctuaries that rescue pet monkeys and victims of the bushmeat trade:

Ngamba Island

Primate Rescue Center

Jungle Friends

Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation

-The Living Links Center