The Great Apes

Chris Herzfeld / Yale University Press / 344 pages

The Great Apes: A Short History, recently translated from French into English, is a comprehensive history of primatology. Many readers may not know that the roots of primatology lie in the exploits and adventures of early travelers and explorers in the 1600s and 1700s. Author Chris Herzfeld recounts the myriad ways humans have pursued their fascination with apes—from early collections of bodies for museums to collection of living beings for zoos, breeding colonies, and laboratories. Chimpanzees, the subjects of early exploration on Earth, later were made to become the explorers themselves in space travel.

In delving into the history of our species’ relation with other apes, Herzfeld calls out biases in perceptions of apes and in treatments that reflect those biases. Objectification, superiority, patriarchy, violence, aggression, racism, and the dichotomy of Western dualist logic are all part of this perspective. For contrast, we learn of Japanese primatology, which is seldom well described in Western publications. An entire chapter is devoted to female primatologists, who have challenged the predominant theories of hierarchy and aggression and introduced theories that include the roles that females play in primate societies. This shift allowed primatologists to understand complex social networks in such societies.

Pre-primatology’s taxonomic categorizations of nonhuman primates were tangled with confusion: Chimpanzees at one time or another were placed in categories with sloths, bats, and even Lucifer. Current primatology has evolved and is incredibly interdisciplinary; the book examines the views of many key thinkers and details the various disciplines behind primatology, including behaviorism, sociobiology, and ethology.

The lives of many home-reared apes are described in detail that accentuates their ability to acquire human cultural habits. There is a relatively short section on the problems of apes growing up in homes. Hopefully, readers don’t miss these paragraphs, which are critical in any description of such environments. The public sees images of cute babies in arms; it rarely connects this to the mature versions, who always end up behind bars.

This book hits a home run with its coverage of field studies. These dramatically expanded our understanding of apes and monkeys, as they provide an opportunity to see these primates living within the cultures and places that allow their full potential to bloom. Studies of captive apes always fall short because of the inherent inability of institutions to replicate nature’s challenges and freedoms.

The author describes the boundary between humans and apes as “porous,” and an underlying theme is the crossing over from being ape to being human and visa versa. In the end she retains the boundary, which is inherent in dualism. Perhaps some readers will instead conclude we can abandon it.

—Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold, AWI board of directors, Fauna Foundation, and Friends of Washoe