“Beauty and the Beasts” by Carole Jahme

Women primatologists braved death threats, rapist orangutans and the twisted mentoring of Louis Leakey to bring us the truth about apes.

Topics: Books,

“I’m nuts about ya, ya big ape.” That line, spoken by the heroines of countless 1930s romantic comedies, takes on a whole new meaning when you consider the field of primatology. Unique among scientific disciplines in that it’s dominated by women, primatology has, in the public’s mind, taken on a female face thanks to the celebrity of Jane Goodall, the late Dian Fossey and Biruth Galdikas. These three women — the “trimates,” as they are called — are the most famous female protigies of the late anthropologist Louis Leakey. But they are by no means the only women who populate the pages of Carole Jahme’s “Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution.”

Jahme’s book never settles down and figures out what it wants to be. That’s what’s good about it, especially if you’re one of those readers who commonly has two or three books going at once. While reading “Beauty and the Beasts,” you’ll find yourself moving from biography (replete with gossipy insider stuff) to scientific survey to conservationist reportage to feminist theory — all without having to pick up another volume.

The likes of Goodall and Fossey have made the plight of endangered primates a matter of widespread public knowledge. The price these scientists have paid for that achievement, Jahme writes, has sometimes been dismissal from various corners of the scientific community. Jealousy certainly motivates some of their critics, but others have also charged that the women have violated the ethic of detached observation that is a sacred standard of scientific research.

There’s no doubt that at times they have. Galdikas allowed herself to be photographed by a Japanese film crew sharing a cup of tea with two female orangutans and their babies. Jahme calls this undignified, but she also acknowledges Galdikas’ rationale. As the world’s leading importer of rain-forest wood, Japan is in a key position to affect the survival of the orangutans, who inhabit those endangered rain forests. Galdikas was using the photos as propaganda in her fight against Japanese timber companies (a fight that has earned her, like many women who have fought for primate survival, death threats).

At the heart of these scientists’ turn to conservationism lies a basic question: What good is our objective knowledge of any species if the species is wiped out? Does that impulse toward intervention violate scientific detachment? Undoubtedly. But it’s their refusal to remain aloof from the moral implications of their job that makes these women heroes for Jahme (and, I’d venture to guess, for most people who will read her book).

Ironically, the female primatologists who have been criticized for their emotional involvement with their subjects share a mentor, Leakey, who championed them precisely because he was convinced women possessed more patience for long-term observation than men and brought fewer preconceptions to their work. Jahme documents the numerous ways in which Leakey’s belief was upheld. For example, male scientists, observing the aggression of male primates, often wrongly assumed that males held positions of power in the animals’ social groups. One of the discoveries made by female primatologists has been that males show off in this way to win the approval of the females, who exercise their own brand of power by carefully choosing their mate(s). The story depicted in “Beauty and the Beasts” is one of the triumph of scientists who see things as they are and not as they are assumed to be.

Leakey emerges as a particularly fascinating character in Jahme’s account. A womanizer (he died in the apartment of Goodall’s mother, with whom he was involved), he nonetheless was a great champion of female scientists despite protests against the idea of sending young women into the jungle. And yet he was capable of almost unbelievable cruelty. He told Dian Fossey she needed to have an appendectomy before going into the jungle, leading her to fake symptoms at Louisville emergency wards until one admitted her. He then told her it had merely been a test to determine her resolve. And he tried to persuade Galdikas to undergo a clitoridectomy because, he said, it would lead to less frequent sex with her husband and reduce the chance of pregnancy and motherhood interfering with her work.

The people who called Leakey crazy for sending women into the field were certainly sexist, but they weren’t wrong about the dangers any such researcher faced. Apart from the perils posed by angry poachers and corrupt government officials, there is the threat from the animals themselves. Male orangutans procreate by rape and have been known to rape the women studying them (Galdikas’ cook was raped). This was almost the fate of Julia Roberts when she made a documentary at Camp Leakey in 1996. One male took a shine to her and grabbed her as she walked along a path. Luckily, a film crew was present, though it took five men to free her from the ape’s grasp.

Jahme’s explanations for why women are drawn to primatology make sense, though they might also make you uneasy if you’re skeptical about old-fashioned claims that women are inherently more nurturing than men. In fact, the stories Jahme relates about women who have tried to stop the poaching and killing of animals make their involvement seem more like a kind of moral common sense. Theirs is not a science merely of cold figures and facts — to suggest that these women might have been turned off by such coldness is not the same as to accuse them of undue emotionalism. Certainly, given the discoveries they’ve made, and the theories they have refuted (particularly about male domination in some species), it’s hard to fault their powers of observation and analysis.

I just wish that Jahme had stuck to the stories of her protagonists. Yes, apes are evolutionarily the closest primates to humans, but Jahme gets into trouble when she tries to justify human behavior by pointing to ape behavior. Some female apes mate with many males to increase the number of males who take part in rearing their babies. But people are not apes, and when Jahme celebrates as a “feminist” triumph the practice — apparently common among her female acquaintances — of choosing one man to (unknowingly) father a child while leading another man (valued for his parenting skills) to believe that he is the child’s father, she’s celebrating a sexual callousness and duplicity equal to any perpetrated by the males of our species.

On the subject of human mothers’ killing their children Jahme writes, “The United States does not recognize the crime of infanticide as anything other than cold-blooded murder … The United States has rough justice in store for women who cannot be perfect mothers in an imperfect world.” How would Jahme characterize infanticide, I wonder, if not as cold-blooded murder? And does she really believe that a mother who kills her child is guilty of being merely “imperfect”?

In a book with one story after another of feminist triumphs both personal and professional, these passages do damage by asserting that duplicitous and even homicidal women should not be held responsible for their own behavior. This misguided, unthoughtful type of theorizing isn’t the book’s only flaw, but it’s the only one that threatens to overwhelm its strengths. Jahme may not be a graceful writer or the most meticulous organizer but she does have a solid, compelling subject. To put it in evolutionary terms, Jahme the storyteller is a much higher primate than Jahme the thinker.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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