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Everything you always wanted to know about gorillasЕ. Review of The natural history of the gorilla by A. F. Dixson. London Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1981 202 pp 16

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American Journal of Primatology 1:473-475 (1981)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About
Gorillas . . .
Review of The Natural History of the Gorilla, by A.F. Dixson. London: Weidenfeld
and Nicolson, 1981, 202 pp, E16.50.
Alan Dixson has given us the most wide-ranging single volume yet written on the gorilla. For anyone seeking to learn about any aspect of the largest of primates, this book is
now the obvious place to start. The author, though mostly a student of other species in
the laboratory, has field experience of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and this breadth of
outlook shows through again and again. Yet two general points should be made at the
outset: First, it is not a natural history in the traditional sense. The accounts of the natural lives of gorillas are sometimes disappointingly brief, and much that is very “unnatural‘‘from studies of captive specimens is included. Second, the work is of a semipopular
rather than a scholarly nature, a sort of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About
Gorillas.” To give but one example, sources are not cited in the text.
The 180 pages of text are split into eight chapters: Historical Perspective, Classification and Distribution, Structure and Function, How Close to Man?, Senses and Intelligence, Behaviour and Ecology, Reproduction and Infant Development, Conservation or
Extinction? Thus, the book unfolds logically and sensibly.
The historical chapter is much like similar chapters in books by Morris and Morris,
Reynolds, and Schaller. Among other points, Dixson notes that the species’threatened
status is at least partly due to prolonged overcollecting of specimens for science.
The chapter on classification gives basic facts on evolutionary trends in primates and
thumbnail sketches of the other apes. Useful maps are provided to illustrate distribution, but there seem to be no agreement on where the species originated.
Structure and function might seem likely to be dry topics for the nonprofessional, but
this chapter is one of the author’s best. He has a knack for going just far enough without
becoming too technical. Also, he often adds an important qualifying sentence or two, eg,
that although the gorilla has the largest brain of any living ape, it has the smallest ratio
of cranial capacity to body weight. In this chapter especially, the line drawings (manyby
the author) are helpful in visualizing points made in the text. In the section on reproductive anatomy, however, one obvious omission is Short’s [1979]provocative work on s e x
ual selection in the apes and man.
Dixson tackles the thorny problem of relationship to Homo with skill, given the complexity of recent findings in biochemical systematics. Various evolutionary trees are
given, and more novelly, comparative findings from parasitology are noted. I t is argued
that since parasites evolve in parallel with their hosts, degrees of host specificity can
provide clues to phylogeny. Given the virtual lack of a fossil record for the apes, Dixson
can do little more than others in speculating on this line of evidence, but no mention is
made of convergence with Gigantopithecus.
0275-256518110104-0473$01.50 0 1981 Alan R.Liss, Inc.
The chapter on the psychology of the gorilla is the weakest, which is a pity, given the
long standing dispute over its intelligence relative to the other great apes. Many articles
by comparative psychologists on gorillas are ignored, and instead, the author leans
heavily on other species, eg, over three pages are devoted uncritically to Kohler’s
pioneering studies of chimpanzees. Similarly, the results of pongo-linguists (Washoe,
Sarah, Lana, etc.) are accepted without questions (eg, there is no mention of N i m ) and
given prominent treatment. Patterson’s [1978]comparable work on Koko merits only a
brief paragraph and is not referenced. Other signs of complex mental capacity in
gorillas, notable mostly by their absence, eg, tool use, art, self-concept, are omitted or
skimmed over. (A more recent paper by Suarez and Gallup [1981]suggests that gorillas,
unlike chimpanzees and orang-utans, cannot recognize themselves in mirrors.)
As befits the books title, the longest chapter is on the gorilla in nature. I t is an admirable synthesis that seems to cover every major field study of the species. However, it also
highlights the two major obstacles faced by the author: First, that the vast bulk of detailed data come from the most atypical population, ie, the harassed and fragmented
mountain gorillas of the Virunga volcanoes. Second, even now little is known about
many aspects of the species’natural history. The author is therefore forced to extrapolate from other great apes, and this is sometimes out of date, eg, chimpanzee mating is
far from promiscuous, as McGinnis’s and Tutin’s work on consortships shows.
As might be expected from the author’s research interests, the chapter on reproduction
is topical, eg, the worryingnew findings on male infertility in captive gorillas are treated
in detail. However, the differences between wild and captive apes are not always clear:
Earlier puberty and larger body size are two artifacts of captive life that have been documented in the chimpanzee and are likely to hold for the gorilla as well. The section on infant development is sketchy. Redshaw’s important work on captive infants is rightly
stressed, but Fossey’s [1979] normative paper on their wild counterparts is ignored.
The chapter on conservation is short but pointed. Existing protected areas in the wild
are listed, and current efforts to extend protection are described, at least for the mountain gorilla. (Even here, more information would have been useful. For the Mountain
Gorilla Project, its emblematic figure, Digit, is not mentioned. Similarly, the Fauna Preservation Society is credited, but not the Peoples’ Trust for Endangered Species nor the
International Primate Protection League.) Conservation in captivity is given fewer than
two pages, and successful, eg, Howlett’s in Kent, as compared with unsuccessful groups
are not specified. Dixson points out that the 467 gorillas currently in captivity are in 119
collections, surely an indefensibly thin spread.
The bibliography has over 400 sources, but these are presented by chapter rather than
in a single list. This is frustrating when a reference is listed for an unlikely chapter rather
than under its “natural”heading. For example, Hess’s key paper on sexual behavior is
not given in the references on reproduction; Sabater Pi’s paper on feeding is not listed in
the references on ecology. The single index is woefully inconsistent. It lists Alan but not
Jane Goodall, Washoe but not Guy, gibbons but not macaques, Neophron but not Troglodytes, Nadler but not Noback, although all are included in the text. For a natural history of this price, the plates are disappointing: only the jacket photograph is in color,
and most of the pictures illustrating other species are of captive and not wild specimens.
There are some minor editorial inconsistencies: distances are sometimes given in meters
and other times in feet; numbers are sometimes given as numerals and other times
written out.
In summary, this review may sound harsher than it was meant to. The reader should
return to the first paragraph for a reminder. Whatever its shortcomings for the professional primatologist, it is bound to be of wide interest to the keen layperson, especially if
it is republished in paperback at a more accessible price.
Book Reviews
Fossey, D. Development of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei):The first thirty-six
months. pp. 138-184 in THE GREAT APES.
D.A. Hamburg, E.R. McCown, eds. Menlo
Park, Benjaminlcummings, 1979.
Patterson, F.G. The gestures of a gorilla: Language acquisition in another pongid. BRAIN
AND LANGUAGE 5: 72-97,1978.
Short, R.V. Sexual selection and its component
parts, somatic and genital selection, as illustrated by man and the great apes. ADVANCES I N THE STUDY OF BEHAVIOR
9: 131-158, 1979.
Suarez, S.D.; Gallup, G.G. Self-recognition in
chimpanzees and orangutans, but not gorillas. JOURNAL OF HUMAN EVOLUTION
10: 175-188, 1981.
W.C. McGrew
Department of Psychology
University of Stirling
Stirling FK9 4LA, Scotland
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