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Biology and primatology. Review of Comparative Primate Biology Volume 2 Part A Behavior Conservation and Ecology edited by G. Mitchell and J. Erwin. New York Alan R. Liss Inc. 1986 633 pp $190

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American Journal of Primatology 1k305-308 (1988)
Biology and Primatology
Review of Comparative Primate Biology, Volume 2, Part A: Behavior, Conservation, and
€co/ogy, edited by G. Mitchell and J. Erwin. New York, Alan R. Liss, Inc., 1986,633 pp
As objects of research, primates have long been the stepchildren of biology. Tests
of important biological theories have rarely involved primates. Major biological
journals publish few primate studies, and, until recently, the theories and data of
primatologists have been given little credence by biologists. Traditionally, primatologists have addressed questions raised by other primatologists in journals about
primates read by other primatologists. Research on no other mammalian order has
been so insular in its goals and readership.
This situation is a result of the complexity of both the origins and the subjects
of primate studies. Arising from the disparate disciplines of psychology and anthropology and, later, biology, primatology has never seemed quite sure what to do with
itself. The unique elaboration of individual differences within the primate order has
defied easy categorization and the inclusion of humans within the order has provided
any generalizations with controversial, and ultimately political, overtones. These
various pressures have often led primatology toward an emphasis on the individual
and the particular and away from the synthetic approach which is a hallmark of
good biology.
Volume 2A of the Comparative Primate Biology series is a good example of the
unhappy and often tenuous relationships between primatology and biology. The
volume is a haphazard collection of miscellaneous reviews that vary widely in
quality and topic. Some of the chapters are excellent, stand-alone reviews that
represent the best of both primatology and biology. Other chapters are such a chore
to read that they made me wonder who, if anyone, the authors were addressing and,
in some cases, why the chapter had even been written. In fact, it was no surprise to
read that the inspiration for the series developed out of a graduate training program,
since a few of the chapters read more like graduate exercises than professional
As the editors point out in the foreword and preface, this volume and the series
as a whole were intended to be empirical and atheoretical in nature. Although I
would argue with the utility of an atheoretical approach, the volume falls so far
short of its empirical goals that most of my remarks will be confined to those
problems. This volume and others in the series are intended to provide exhaustive,
comparative reviews of major topics in primate biology. These reviews are supposed
to increase awareness of primate diversity, to highlight the gaps in our knowledge,
and to provide evidence that can be used by theorists. The experience of reading this
volume, however, is more reminiscent of a punitive blackboard exercise than of the
rewarding, intellectual process it apparently was intended to be. The failure is a
consequence both of the encyclopedic format of some of the reviews and of the lack
of logical relationship among the various topics and is compounded by the absence
of any editorial introduction or discussion of the various subsections.
0 1988 Alan R. Liss, Inc.
306 i Whitten
If you take the editors at their word and expect this volume to be about the
behavioral ecology of primates, you will be very disappointed. The book is divided
into five sections (ecology, social structure, development, stress and environments,
and communication), each containing two to five reviews. As the editors state, these
topics are relevant for understanding primate ecology and promoting primate conservation. However, only two of the 15 papers seem to have been written with these
objectives in mind. A more likely scenario is that the editors assembled a group of
reviews and then searched for a subject, however vague, to tie them together. The
choice of behavioral ecology is not surprising; its global approach makes it a common
dumping ground for these uncertain assemblages.
The absence of a common theme is especially disappointing, because there are a
number of worthwhile reviews that would have been more widely read and appreciated if they had been presented in other contexts. For example, two chapters review
and analyze the theory behind one or more approaches to the study of behavior, yet
none of the other chapters in this volume could be said to exemplify any of these
approaches. Coelho reviews the theory and mathematics behind time-energy budget
analyses of behavior. Bernstein and Williams contrast and evaluate two analytical
approaches to the study of social organization. Both of these papers raise some
interesting points and are likely to be frequently cited in future studies, but both
papers would have made more interesting reading if they had been placed in another
context. Coelho’s paper would have provided a good introduction to a set of specific
studies of primate ecology. The Bernstein and Williams paper would have been an
excellent addition to a set of papers discussing the origins of primate societies.
Similarly, Nadler, Herndon, and Wallis discuss the hormonal regulation of
reproductive behavior. This comparison of monkey and ape sexual behavior has
little relationship to any of the other papers in this volume and seems especially out
of place in a section entitled “Development.” There is little new here; most of the
differences described have been discussed at length elsewhere [eg, Gordon, 1981;
Harcourt, 1981; Nadler, 1981; Baum, 19831, and the review completely ignores the
data on the sexual behavior of guenons and langurs that contradict this apparent
dichotomy [Hrdy 8z Whitten, 19871. However, we are told that two papers in Volume
2B contain papers on reproduction: one on the seasonality of reproductive behavior
and one on reproduction in zoological parks. With some editorial input, this review
could have provided a good background and perhaps an interesting counterpoint to
these other approaches to the study of reproductive behavior.
Perhaps a greater fault is that discovery of the topics that do unite some volume
chapters is left entirely to the reader. For instance, Baldwin’s chapter on exploration
and play, Caine’s chapter on puberty and adolescence, and Capitano’s chapter on
behavioral pathology all deal directly or indirectly with the process by which an
individual masters and elaborates control over motor and social behavior. Yet there
is no evidence that the authors have read one another’s papers, and there are no
editorial comments that could elucidate or at least alert readers to the common
threads in these chapters.
The lack of strong editorial oversight is evident also in the organization and
presentation of the individual chapters. Many pages in this volume could have been
cut by reducing the reams of data described here into logically organized tables. For
example, the recently published Primate Societies [Smuts et al, 19871provides many
more reviews in as many pages by extensive reliance on tabular presentation of
data. This method also adds much to comprehension, as can be seen from the
excellent use of figures and tables in the chapter on primate conservation by
Mittermeier et al. It is unfortunate that this technique was not used throughout the
Biology and Primatology I 307
The quality of reviews is as diverse as the topics in this volume. There are some
excellent reviews here. Three chapters by Epple, Snowdon, and Baldwin, respectively, are especially notable both for the significance of their respective syntheses
and for their welcome departures from the strictly phylogenetic organization that
characterizes, and ultimately detracts from, most of the other chapters in this
vnlirm-e. Epple’s chapter on chemical communication in primates is an engrossing
and thoroughly enjoyable review. Her comprehensive review describes the anatomical and neural structures underlying chemical perception, discusses the sources of
signals and problems of structural identification, describes signalling behavior, and
discusses the types of messages communicated. Epple’s chapter is remarkable not
only for the wide range of material and approaches presented but also for the
author’s intelligent and objective examination of the value and problems of these
various approaches. Snowdon’s chapter on vocal communication in primates can be
recommended for many of the same reasons. His perceptive review begins with a
phylogenetic overview of vocal repertoires and then goes on to examine the environmental and functional constraints on vocal structure, the types of messages conveyed, and the sources of signal variability. Snowdon continues with an intriguing
examination of vocal perception in primates, the neural mechanisms of vocal communication and the ontogeny of vocal behavior, and concludes with an enlightening
review of the evidence for grammatical structure in primate communication. Baldwin provides a similarly important synthesis of the data on exploration and play in
primate infants. He examines both proximate and ultimate explanations for play
and exploration and provides an insightful review of the numerous physiological
and environmental factors that may influence the expression of these behaviors.
Several other reviews are also noteworthy. Kaplan’s chapter is a solid and very
informative review of studies of stress in primates that describes and discusses the
history of approaches to stress necessary to understand and evaluate these studies.
The chapter on primate conservation by Mittermeier, Oates, Eudey, and Thornback
is an exceptionally well-organized review of the global and regional problems threatening primate populations. Caine also provides a thoughtful review of the events
and questions surrounding adolescence.
Other chapters look promising but are disappointing. An example is the chapter
by Schapiro and Mitchell on behavior in primate colonies. This chapter reviews the
history and characteristics of a number of free-ranging primate colonies. Information
on climate and habitat are provided along with brief summaries of social organization and foraging, reproductive, and caretaking behaviors. The chapter is well
researched and contains a good deal of interesting information. The problem is what
the reader stands to gain by what the authors themselves call “a seemingly disjointed discussion.” The information contained here should be of interest to several
categories of readers. This review should be most valuable for primatologists in
search of a study site; by comparing the characteristics of the various colonies and
the behaviors exhibited there, the reader might be able to choose an appropriate
colony or decide whether a colony is better or worse than a wild population for a
particular type of study. Other readers, such as primate researchers comparing
behavior from different study sites, might find some basis for interpreting discrepancies in the reported patterns of behavior. Finally, directors of primate colonies or
readers interested in establishing a colony might derive some useful information
about the factors leading t o the success or failure of a primate colony. Unfortunately,
the chapter does not serve any of these goals very well. Much of the necessary
information is present, but synthesis, for the most part, is left to the reader.
Finally, there are several chapters of elusive value and meaning. These chapters
include an unfocused review of interanimal distance by Ibanez, two prolonged and
308 I Whitten
rather tedious reviews of perinatal behavior in prosimians and anthropoids by
Shively and Mitchell, and a surprisingly unsurprising chronicle of primate field
studies by Southwick and Smith.
Assessments of significance necessarily reflect the personal biases of the reviewer and should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. I may be alone in
thinking that the proclivities of various primates to vomit at birth is somewhat akin
to a history of the three-pronged fork, and many primatologists may be happy to
have 100 pages of this sort of information on their bookshelves. Others may conclude
that the high quality of a number of reviews in this volume overshadows the
problems of the others. I doubt that many colleagues will be happy, however, to pay
the $190.00 pricetag necessary to obtain this volume. Both the price and the length
of this volume could have been reduced to a more manageable size by a stronger
editorial hand.
It is unfortunate that some excellent reviews and many good reviews are hidden
in this diffident vehicle. Surely primate biology can be more than an offertorium to
the theorists of biology. As biologists of the Order Primates, we are unique in our
appreciation of, and willingness to call upon, the diversity of approaches to the study
of life. We have as our subjects one of the most complex and interesting orders in the
animal kingdom. It is time that we had the confidence to be the biologists, and the
courage to be the critics, of this discipline.
Patricia L. Whitten
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Yale School of Medicine
New Haven, Connecticut
sexual activity. Pp. 370-384 in PRIMATE
Baum, M.J. Hormonal modulation of sexuality in female primates. BIOSOCIAL SCI- SOCIETIES. B.B. Smuts, D.L. Cheney, R.M.
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Seyfarth, R.W. Wrangham, T.T. Struhsaker,
Gordon, T.P. Reproductive behavior in the
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ables. AMERICAN ZOOLOGIST 21:185- Nadler, R.D. Laboratory research on sexual
behavior of the great apes. Pp. 191-238 in
Harcourt, A.H. Inter-male competition and
the reproductive behavior of the great apes.
TIVE AND BIOMEDICAL PERSPEC- Smuts, B.B.; Cheney, D.L.; Seyfarth, R.M.;
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PRIMATE SOCIETIES. Chicago, UniverHrdy, S.B.; Whitten, P.L. The patterning of
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190, conservative, liss, erwin, inc, new, 1986, volume, york, behavior, part, 633, primate, edited, comparative, mitchell, biologya, ecology, review, primatology, alan
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