Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Primate Parenting

Way back when people used to recommend formula-feeding (over breastfeeding), isolating babies in their own rooms to sleep, and putting mothers under general anesthesia for a birth, I imagine the idea was to make the whole procedure more clinical, hence more scientific. Now all of the sciency-types are looking to hunter-gatherer societies and even other primates to get ideas for the best ways of raising human babies.

Personally, I just got done reading Parenting for Primates, by Harriet J. Smith (primatologist and psychologist), and wrote up my reactons in a little article here for Rational Moms.

The picture above is one I found while looking through old photos to find one of me with baby Léo strapped on in a baby pouch. That's Léo and his daddy. (Dang, babies are cute, aren't they?)

Then, to make up for the fact that every time I talk about primates I end up just talking about humans, I'll add that I've also recently read Among Orangutans by Carel Van Schaik -- a researcher at the university right here in Zurich!

This is a gorgeous book filled with stunning photos (by Perry Van Duijnhoven) of orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

Just because this looks like a coffee-table book doesn't mean it's a lightweight, though. This book outlines the latest information about orangutans, including some surprises like the fact that (when the environment is favorable) orangutans are far more social and less solitary than previously thought. Also, the author uses the orangutan example to outline a theory about ape intelligence. Primatologists commonly talk about the importance of abstract thinking for improving one's social rank (the machiavellian theory of intelligence). Carel Van Schaik proposes a related (but slightly different) idea that abstract thinking is critical for (cultural) learning about where and when to find food and how to get it.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite reads in the last few years was a book called Baboon Metaphysics, about a series of experiments done with baboons to try to assess their ability to use and manipulate symbols and the extent of their sense of right and wrong. It's fascinating stuff. One of the things I liked in particular about BM was the ways it drew out the complexity of the task of studying primates, and the ways that assumptions can taint your research and throw you off track.

The obvious, and equally fascinating corollary, of course, is the study of humans, which is even harder, because of the relationship between external observation and reports of internal states. Daniel Dennett does a wonderful job of exploring these issues in his book Consciousness Explained.

I'll have to check out Among Orangutans. It sounds wonderful.

Anonymous said...

This looks like a great book. Thanks for the rec.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Robert!!!

Wow, I'll have to check out Baboon Metaphysics! I really like reading about humans trying to understand other primates and how they devise and interpret experimental data. Studying humans is also fun, but (as you point out) perhaps even more challenging.

Hey Chaplain!!!

No problem! :D

Aerin said...

We had a great course in 5th grade called MACOS . That's what this makes me think of - we watched videos of baboons grooming one another, creating hierarchy, etc. The only reason I mention this is that the program was cancelled so more time could be spent on the U.S. Constitution.

While the consitution is important, IMO, I learned about the constitution in many other courses throughout my school career. This was the only such course about anthropology, biology and sociology that I remember, especially before high school.

Bob said...

Great, more books to read. My stack is big enough, thanks. But you just have to add more don't you? :)

I love pointing out the similarities between humans and other primates to evolution deniers. It's amazing how nimbly they can perform the needed mental gymnastics.

That's a great pic of your baby. One of the side effects of my LDS upbringing is "aaaw" factor whenever I see kids. Of course, after twenty minutes with them I have the "get me out!!" response. Heh.

King Aardvark said...

That's interesting stuff. I'll have to pick it up if I see it, plus Baboon Metaphysics. I recently picked up Barute Galdikas's book Great Ape Odyssey; it also included many wonderful large photos, though it concerned itself more with environmental and poaching problems than more detailed social behaviour or evolutionary topics.

And about trends in raising children, these cycle on an almost yearly basis. It's hard to keep up with trends, and, unlike advances in science, parenting advice rarely seems to hone in on the correct answer; it swings about madly. Most people still turn out ok regardless of parenting techniques. Sigh. I wish all this stuff was easier, since kids are probably not too far off in the future for me.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey King Aardvark!!!

Well, you know what they say: I used to have no kids and two theories on child-rearing -- now I have two kids and no theories on child-rearing. ;^)

JulieAnn said...

Okay, that is a damn cute baby! Gee, is there anything animals can't do better than humans?

BTW, I think I linked you up to me. If that's okay :0)

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks JulieAnn!!!

I'll be adding you back to Outer Blogness soon, but the service at is still down (at least for any kind of blogroll updates). I hope they fix it soon -- I'm starting to get a backlog of blogs that need to be added...

JSE said...

Did you know that Harriet Smith is my aunt?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey JSE!!!

Wow, talented family!! That is too funny -- I had no idea! I asked my husband if he knew the author was your aunt before buying the book, and he said that no, he'd just happened on it at random in a Paris bookshop, and bought it for me because it looked like something I'd like.

Does that mean you got to see her colony of cottontop tamarins?