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Book review The natural history of Madagascar.

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Book Reviews
M. Goodman and Jonathan P. Benstead. Photographs
by Harald Schütz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2006. 1728 pp. ISBN 022-630307-1. $50.00 (paper).
Madagascar is unlike any other place on earth. The
popular press and scientific literature have drawn our
attention to reports of new species of living lemurs, tales
of elephant birds and giant lemurs that have recently
gone extinct, and the plight of the island’s remaining
natural habitats. The Natural History of Madagascar
augments this story with an abundance of new detail.
Editors Steven Goodman and Jonathan Benstead have
marshaled the work of 281 researchers to produce this
hefty tome of 1,700 pages. The result is a valuable
resource for anyone interested in Madagascar, from
undergraduate to researcher, ecotourist to policy maker,
and it gives us much more than the title promises.
The opening chapter tells us that the first natural history of Madagascar was published in 1658. Despite this
long history of scientific exploration, much of the information presented in the following pages was collected
only in the last few decades! This is not surprising, as
the natural history presented in this volume is not just
an inventory of the unique presences and strange absences on the island. In the hands of Goodman and Benstead, natural history encompasses a synthetic vision of
research derived from a wide range of disciplines. This is
especially apparent in Chapters 2–6, which present contextual information on the geology, paleontology, climate, ecology, and anthropology of Madagascar. These
chapters provide a necessary, albeit brief, background
for understanding the forces that have shaped the modern biologic patterns of the island’s flora and fauna
described in subsequent chapters. Of particular interest
to anthropologists are the papers presented in the
‘‘Human Ecology’’ chapter (Chapter 5). Today, human
activities permeate every ecosystem of Madagascar. Evidence presented in the archaeology essays illustrates
just how different Madagascar was before a late-arriving humanity set foot on the island. The cultural and
political ecology of agriculture, fire, and human disease
are also discussed in this section. The point of these
inclusions is that Madagascar’s natural history cannot
be disconnected from the human context. Bringing together essays in human ecology at the beginning of the
volume sets the tone for an important theme that is
revisited in the final chapter, the reconciliation of
the needs of the local population with the interests of
The mass of the book, made up by Chapters 7–13, is a
taxonomic overview covering plants, invertebrates,
fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. These
chapters are interconnected by essays on such topics as
pollination ecology, insect-plant interactions, and the
effects of forest fragmentation on the fauna of the island.
Numerous data-filled tables and appendices found within
the contributed papers include detailed information on
collection localities, summaries of geographic distributions, and ecological data for individual species. Most
species accounts are accompanied by one or more photoC 2008
graphs, many in color. The resolution of detail varies
among the chapters, relating directly to the number of
researchers working with the taxonomic group. One benefit of this layout is that it offers readers a chance to
reflect on the state of knowledge about a topic. For
example, the primary focus of mammal studies in Madagascar has always been lemurs, as these unique primates are the island’s flagship species. As such, much more
information is available for individual primate species
than the format allows to be adequately summarized. In
contrast, little work has been conducted on many of the
nonprimate mammals, and thus these essays represent
an excellent appraisal of the meager information that
has been collected on their ecology.
Although understanding of many groups remains very
incomplete, the collected knowledge of Madagascar’s
biota has increased significantly in the last decades. This
explosion of data is cause for celebration, as is the
increasing participation of Malagasy field biologists. Malagasy field assistants have always played a central,
although largely unrecognized, role in research on the
island. This situation has recently changed, and much
of the research presented in this volume has been carried out by Malagasy scientists or international collaborative teams. This new data provides occasion to take a
critical look at how effectively we are applying new
knowledge to address the current environmental crisis
in Madagascar. The final chapter (Chapter 14) is made
up of 29 essays that consider conservation issues. These
essays explore a wide range of topics, including the
unique biota of protected areas, regional human cultures, and conservation history. This allows for broad
insight into the multifaceted challenges to conservation
in Madagascar.
The Natural History of Madagascar triumphs as a
synthesis of existing knowledge about Madagascar. It
can be used both as a reference and as a source of ideas
for future research. The organization and format of the
volume invite selective reading on areas of particular
interest. As to genuine criticisms, I have few. The volume builds in strength, from minimal treatments of
the soils and climate of the island in the introductory
pages to a very strong final discussion of conservation.
I came across a few bibliographic omissions and citations of unpublished work, but these are minor points
given the impressive range of topics covered in this
Because the volume was financed with contributions
from several institutions and the editors and contributors waived their right to royalties, the price for the
paperback copy of this book is a mere $50.00. The math
works out to a cost of less than 3 cents per page! This
book needs to be on the desk of every student and in the
library of every university. Currently, a French translation is in press, which will add to the distribution of this
book in Madagascar.
High biodiversity, very high endemism, great ecosystem diversity, and increasing degradation all combine to
make every little piece of what remains in Madagascar
extremely important in global terms. So what can we
do? Since Madagascar has been of little geopolitical significance, it has only rarely come to the attention of the
outside world, and only biologists have focused heavily
on it. However, conservation is both an outcome and an
action. The Natural History of Madagascar makes a
strong argument for what we need to save. The pressing
need for greater awareness of Madagascar is why this
book is so important.
Department of Anatomy
Dartmouth Medical School
Hanover, New Hampshire
Maestripieri. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2007. 198 pp. ISBN 0-226-50117-5. $25.00 (cloth).
Rhesus macaques are Asian monkeys found from Afghanistan to China; geographically they are the most successful primates after humans. They flourish in Indian
towns and are also the primary primate subjects of biomedical research. Rhesus macaques and humans had a
common ancestor 25 million years ago and share 93% of
their genome sequences. Thus, Dario Maestripieri argues
that many aspects of human nature have an ancient evolutionary history and that we should look back in time
farther than hunter-gatherer societies or even apes to find
the origins of our own behaviors. He leads us on an eventful journey through the rhesus world in a quest for the
evolutionary determinants of our own species’s success.
Rhesus macaques form groups of some dozen individuals consisting of both adult males and females with offspring. Males disperse and periodically transfer from
one group to the other. Females stay in their natal
groups, forming kin-bonded subgroups. This book
reviews the different facets of rhesus social organization:
kinship, alliance, cooperation, competition, intergroup
relations, sexual behavior, parenting, communication,
and social manipulation. It is written in a popular and
colorful style that produces a vivid account of the cruel
world of rhesus macaques. We learn that they live in a
mafia system ruled by dominance and nepotism and that
individuals have to choose between domination and submission at every stage of life. Patterns of support and
alliance follow strict kinship rules that determine a
female’s adult social rank from birth.
Those who know rhesus macaques will enjoy the accuracy of Maestripieri’s portrayal. Others will benefit from
the countless metaphors employed to explain the forces
behind behaviors: ‘‘Much like any soap opera aficionado,
each rhesus macaque knows which monkeys are family
members, friends, or enemies, who has a crush on
whom, and who’s sleeping with whom’’ (p. 43). A daughter receiving help from her mother during conflicts
‘‘started a file on every adult in the group and recorded
in her mind who was afraid of her mother and who
wasn’t, who her mother treated with respect and who
she didn’t care for" (p. 56). Dominant males during the
mating season ‘‘become the sex police and watch all the
females and males in their group day and night" and
‘‘concentrate on their mission of impregnating all their
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
Dartmouth College
Hanover, New Hampshire
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20905
Published online 18 August 2008 in Wiley InterScience
females in their group" (p. 87–88). Humorous tone has
its limits, however, as it necessarily flirts with anthropomorphism. Asserting that males make plans for the next
season or that females pay for male protection with sex
does not actually mean that individuals are aware of
their own strategies. Despite the author’s warnings, the
reader may find it difficult to distinguish between different explanatory levels.
Dario Maestripieri argues that the society of rhesus
macaques arises from a combination of economics and
politics. His explanations rest upon an economic view of
behavior, that is, at the heart of sociobiological theory.
Individuals behave altruistically toward their kin to
ensure the spread of the genes they have in common,
whereas their interactions with nonrelatives represent
‘‘business transactions,’’ in which services are exchanged.
The ‘‘Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis’’ completes
this picture for group-living species by asserting that the
natural selection promotes these individuals better able
to get power and to exploit others. Most chapters in the
book interpret rhesus behaviors in this light, but some
gaps remain. The cognitive abilities necessary to implement social maneuvers are only cursorily addressed in
the penultimate chapter. How good monkeys are as
accountants determine which strategies are open to
them. It is expected that such strategies involve experience and inference, so I am perplexed by Maestripieri’s
use of the word ‘‘preprogrammed,’’ which appears 13
times in the text, to mean that monkey brains are formatted for particular tasks. This term has quite strong
connotations. It emanates from genetics and implies that
a program is encoded in the genes, which leaves little
room for intelligence.
Rhesus macaques do not fulfill several expectations of
sociobiological theory. A dominant female sometimes kidnaps the infant of a mother for several days and starves
the infant to death. It is assumed that individuals
harass unrelated conspecifics to inflict fitness costs upon
them and infant kidnapping is generally accounted for
this way. As stressed by the author, however, most kidnappings end without harm to infants, who return to
their mothers after some minutes or hours. An alternative explanation is that kidnappings are a mere outcome
of females’ strong attraction to infants and that deaths
are accidental rather than intentional. Sociobiological
theory also predicts that males will commit infanticide
against the offspring of other males and that hostile
encounters between groups induce serious injuries.
Nothing like that has yet been observed. It could be that
the actual dispositions of rhesus macaques are less dark
than our theories. Domination is a successful strategy on
a short timescale, as amply documented by the author.
But, several studies on female macaques indicate that
lifetime reproductive success primarily depends on their
longevity. Low-risk strategies that avoid violence may
bring high payoffs in the long run.
The last chapter addresses the book’s subtitle, How
Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the
World. Any student of rhesus macaques has probably pondered whether their exceptional resilience and ability to
cope with anthropogenic environments may be related to
a social life marked by distrust. Dario Maestripieri goes
one step farther in suggesting that rhesus macaques and
human beings are especially armed for competition and
that both species have successfully conquered the world
thanks to their military organization. The reader will not
find any anthropological arguments for this point; the
author refers only to his personal experience regarding
human behavior. Although he should acknowledge that
populating the earth was achieved by societies of huntergatherers, he maintains that we have to strip off our cultural clothes to discover the rhesus foundations of our
military nature. I am skeptical regarding the claim that
groups of macaques behave like armies. I myself would
tell the author that the organization of kills and wars is
unknown in monkeys. He writes as an answer that we
share with rhesus macaques a military-style mentality responsible for our hierarchical structures.
Dario Maestripieri warns us from the start that we
may not like what we see in the rhesus mirror. We may
ask, in turn, to what extent the rhesus image is reliable.
We were invited in the past to look at baboons, chimpanzees, or even bonobos as models for human evolution.
Each of them contains some element of truth, and putting rhesus macaques in the spotlight definitely enlarges
the picture. The next question is to know to what extent
these representations of ourselves are genuine rhesus
macaques or a product of our theoretical glasses. Every
reader will reach her or his own conclusions from the
evidence provided. This truly anthropological question
makes the book worthwhile reading for all people interested in its answer.
Départment Ecologie, Physiologie & Ethologie
IPHC Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique
Université de Strasbourg
Strasbourg, France
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20912
Published online 18 August 2008 in Wiley InterScience
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
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