Category Archives: Crib notes

Franz de Waal: Complementary Methods and Convergent Evidence in the Study of Primate Social Cognition


Long ago my friend Ben worked for Penguin and lived on a billion strong pile of paperbacks….Ben would reach down and hand me a tome at random. One time I looked in my hand and saw “The Ape And The Sushi Master” by someone called Franz de Waal.

I was young and stupid in the day. I never read that book: it went directly to the charity shop.

No matter. Cos now I got Student Library Access. And the world of Franz is beaming at me like a baboon’s blushing botty. This is a person I can really like.

I’m on Lecture 3 of Human Animal Interactions and tbh I’ve been finding this lecture tough going. The first two I aced, because the content was basically what I’d been reading for the past year. (I still learned loads of new stuff like hallucinating dogs and why there are no trees).

Then in L3 I got culture. First I read Brumann and his contemporaries arguing about whether “culture” is a useful concept. Probably the biggest thing I learned here is it’s no longer cool in any way to maintain rigid conceptions of race and gender. Everything comes down to the individual now, as it should be, and as I have always wanted but never been able to express.

But the takeout from Brumann and others seems to be that “cultural” can be useful adjective, e.g. cultural relativism means hallucinating dogs are important to people like Ameriga and Hilario, and interesting in a different way to people like me.

What I really like about Franz de Waal is he splits off all the authoritarian rubric and talks like a human of great and humble kindness. He’s wondering about how to study the cognitive processes of primates. His fundamental premise is parsimonious: that if humans and apes evolved along the same lines, and humans have some sort of inner speech, let’s save time and effort by assuming that apes have something similar. He makes us remember that being afraid of being anthropomorphic is just that much bull dust. After all, Descartes did the original anthropomorphic sin by splitting the animal clean off from the human – because they couldn’t possibly be “like us”.

Franz isn’t immune from the Cartesian double standard. He asks us to be courageous when we ascribe intent and purpose to what we observe primates doing. It’s OK to say an animal is “courting” when it displays its buttocks; it would be a little bit rat in the lab to instead use “notification”. Yet later when he tells us how chimps avoid conflict, he tells us how a female “activates” a sleeping elder to help break up a fight. Would “waking up” have been OK? Come to think of it, is there a better, more embracing word than “female” to nominally describe these individuals?

I feel like I’m on and off these lines in my mind: from biology and how brains work, to philosophy, to social science and back round to biology. It is a rush for sure, with the anxiety that I can’t keep on the lines. Does anyone have mental hygiene tips for the new student? Can’t keep stealing office post its in these quantities…..

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Word. Anthropology = humanity alone?


If you are new to anthrozoology, allow me to introduce you to:

a) An avenue of anthropology in which we think about animals to find out about ourselves
b) An orphan subject, since questioning interspecies relationships from all sides excludes it from science or (human) social science
c) An undoubtedly amorphous but importantly rad and overdue framework that allows us to ask not only how people think about animals but vice versa.

In your reading you will find a few major types of thinker. One is the social anthropologist. For these authors anthrozoology is typically an examination of humanity. By studying what they can’t do, we find out what we can do. Tim Ingold, editor of the brilliant collection “What is an Animal”, holds firm on the point that animals have a practical consciousness that enables them to perform tasks that are largely pre-programmed, whereas humans have the conceptual framework and language to speculate and plan in thought.

And then there are people like Goodwin (link to follow) who kick Descartes to the kerb by expounding on the rational and essentially creative qualities of the non-human mind. I myself am rather pleased Descartes is no longer around, but he sure left a mark.

Read this in amazement guys. Here is an example of anthrozoology attempting to understand the non-human consciousness. I think this is also an important approach and one which includes questions, for example, on the weeping and graveyard vigils of elephants.

That studies like this are often represented in anthropological context is not cowardice on the authors part, it is not for want of imagination. Anthropology has the tools and practice to allow us to examine relationships between beings, other beings and the environment – and the cultural patterns that result. This affords anthrozoology a multidisciplinary context that would greatly shrink under the single lens of science, economics, politics etc.

Importantly, anthropology has decades of practice in trying to overcome the limits of subjective experience. Even as we study humanity, we simply cannot always know what other people are thinking. We heavily borrow the mental equipment of anthropology.

It’s probably because humanity builds on subjective experience that anthrozoology is such an ambiguous subject. Elephants turn the bones. A cultural anthropologist chooses a pastry for breakfast. I read a little about chimps and go comfy comfy to sleep…

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I’m a student now, a student of anthrozoology


So I’m 34, I work in advertising, I just started my MA in anthrozoology with Trinity St David, Lampeter, South Wales. What I learn there I’m taking to you here. My plan is to rinse off the glutinous academia and give you guys, oh fearless Readers I Can Count On My Favourite Hand, the kernel. I’m a distance learner. You’re pretty much all I have, so stay with me OK.

Question: if you were commencing a study in anthrozoology, what kind of kernel would you be expecting? My understanding was that anthrozoology concerns the relationships – physical, moral, social – cultural – that humans have with other animate species and vice versa. And I guess that means how we treat each other, look at each other, use each other.

This is true, but the first lecture has made me wonder if I’ve been too gung ho on the reciprocity vibe. After all, the study takes its name from Anthropology: a discourse on how we think about our own species. A discussion, a thinkathon. Wow, we can just never shut up about our own shit.

There are 4 or 5 reviews on this lecture’s reading list, mainly from the 80s and 90s when anthrozoology was in utero. Every review presses the point that understanding how we think about animals matters because it helps us see how we organise ourselves. The ox driver betrays the slave master, the dog breeder exposes our neurosis, the sow pen represents our communal spirit shrinking away in apartment blocks, etcetera. We have to be careful not to lapse into easy relativism – like equating the parent subject anthropology with the stigma of colonialism, red faced and impertinent in eternity.

While I can’t imagine how it will ever happen, I’ll never stop trying to know what animals think. It is obvious to me that this is an important part of the next stage in our evolution. The thing is trying to get that feeling to feel true to other people too. It’s a good time to do it, even if I am self-imposed in my singular apartment. Even if my cat don’t speak any kind of human. Even if the internet will never stroke my hair and tell me I’m a beautiful genius.

Once again welcome to my blog. I hope you enjoy it.

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Part 1: Claude Levi Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory. Patrick Wilcken


I’m reading this magic bio of Claude Levi Strauss by Patrick Wilcken. If you are into anthrozoology you must come to Claude.

He was tall and healthy. He lived to 101. Let’s vaguely amass his worldly contribution from say 1930.
As a young academic Claude swiveled on a tripod of Freud, Marx and geology, attracted by the things underneath things. He moved like a magnet on the pull of his mind.

Anthropology was an infant discipline when Claude was himself a young academic. His ideas were impressionistic like flowers on a badly printed pillowcase. Tough to master in the large, so he started with the One. He asked, what is a human being? And thus went to Brazil to track the remnant societies of hunter gatherer Indians.

A predictable peregrination for the time, with teams of cattle, mules, hired herders. He saw the human condition in the layout of the pioneer towns. He saw it in the careful balancing of flour sacks on the sides of the draught animals. Just as I saw, in the Sinai this year, the weighting of scuba tanks on camels. Claude was noticing pattern, balance and relationship.

When he reached the first forest settlement of “savages” his intellectual excitement took a knock. What “took away the poetry of my naïve vision” were flecks of the same global churn that sobers us today. Broken bits of a sewing machine, cheap shitty utensils. This surely needled his conscience for his own corrupting influence, his intellectual and material lust: in his quest for artefacts: he traded similar tat and toys for exquisite, irreplaceable craft.

His sense for connections leapt out when he met the Bororo. He noticed the precision routine of their rural hamlet, the same stamp of human organization as in the pioneer village and the load weighting on the mules. Embroidered on this template was the deft association of hut to hut, tribe to clan, man to woman.

He travelled with a guy called Vellard who clearly was a dick. A tropical medicine specialist, his academic assholery included plunging a poison-tipped arrow into the thigh of a dog. The dog became torpid and died after some minutes. Vellard also ransacked a village for artefacts, and when a small child got abandoned in the fray, wondered if he could place the boy in an adoptive home and study him.

On one expedition, the Indians and the researchers alike caught a purulent conjunctivitis. Not Claude. He had a pet capuchin monkey, Lucinda, trained to cling to his boot. At times he felt lonely, futile, trapped in his mind and the sprawl of his notebooks. At the end of the expedition he swore off fieldwork for its indiscreet intrusion.

He went back to Paris to furnish a museum. War broke out and Claude, a Jew, was confused. With the fear that makes a person arrogant, he carried on as usual for some time. Danger was creeping in and Claude was dallying in the woods. But he found something. He held up a dandelion seed head and his vision exploded.

Here was the conclusion of everything. The dandelion was the result of its own structural properties, organized into a unique geometry. He built an intellectual career out of this flyaway piece of nature.

Of course he had to get away. He got an apartment in Greenwich Village NY and began lecturing on tribal kinship. He met all sorts of others in exile. His most influential friend was Roman Jakobson.

Jakobson was a philosopher of linguistics. He blew on Claude’s dandelion and what remained was the Two.

The quanta of language was phonemes, said Jakobson, and the essence of language the relationship between phonemes. This is too intelligent for me, so let’s move on.

Claude Levi-Strauss had found a vital piece of kinship circuitry. As Wilcken puts it, he saw the mathematical efficiency that drives the drama of human relationships. He was back to the big impressionist picture. Something like marriage rules, hard to understand in isolation, made sense as part of a set of contrasting strategies. He got free of the physical and came back to where he started: the forces underneath. Two dandelion seeds broke the surface and Claude put out some very special new roots.

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In the company of animals. James Serpell


JS has a big line in companion animal research. He once helped a New York Times journalist overcome her pet co-dependency. His 1986 review is an excellent primer to the dilemma of domestication.

There’s a ton of history in this book. It builds up to the conflict in which we personally invest, with the tenderest of hearts, in certain species and not others. Check out the levels. There have been almighty animal gods, and we still revere non-humans in documentaries, wildlife safaris and ladybird on a dew dropped leaf screensavers.  This could be a sort of worshipping by proxy. At the bottom of the pyramid are the animals we incorporate into our own cells. They arrive on the plate via a largely invisible chain of events. And in the middle, in the home and alive, are the animals we touch, feed, and talk to. Some say pet keeping is parenting by proxy.

So all three levels remove humans from nature. In this argument, keeping pets is as unnatural as keeping sows in oversmall pens.

This is where my thinking becomes increasingly circular and tormented.

Serpell’s message in this text is our moral anguish at our distance from nature. But it’s the distance from nature that has given us more moral latitude in the first place.

When we were dying in the jaws of animals, we didn’t have to feel so bad about killing them too. But things got complicated as we got more imaginative. There were animal totems, tabus, things you could and couldn’t do to another living being. Rituals you had to do to purify your carnist appetite. Lions STILL don’t do this when they’re ripping the near-term foetuses out of a warthog’s belly. (True story)

Where did the guilt come from? It was there since forever, and we outstride it somehow, but not indefinitely. We’re such adolescents.

Anyway, we domesticated things for use, suckled their young for kicks. Kids saw themselves mirrored and laughed. We liked the animals, especially the tame ones who stayed babylike and cute in the face.

And now we think about it all the more. We empathize, study the culture and needs of the beast in the bed, and we worry, and we wish we’d never stopped being an animal so we didn’t have to feel so torn in our age of biological destruction.

Subplot of a big story. This is the way it is, and it’s something to work with.

Great book. Thank you James.