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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 28th, 2001


 

Beauty & the Beasts: Woman, Ape, and Evolution

by

A review by Molly McQuade

Modern primatology could be regarded as the scientific offspring of one man's sex drive. Beginning in 1954, Carole Jahme writes, the paleontologist Louis Leakey began recruiting unproven young women for field research under his sponsorship, in part because he believed in their innate ability to observe primates in nature without fatigue or prejudice and in part because he wanted to seduce them. Jane Goodall, his first famous "ape lady," was so "appalled" by his romantic overtures in 1958 that Leakey, crestfallen, turned to her mother, and pursued a lasting affair with her instead. As grossly insensitive as he was lascivious, he advised the newly wed Biruté Galdikas to get a clitoridectomy before she journeyed with her husband to Borneo in 1971 to study wild orangutans. She'd then be uninterested in sex, her aging mentor reasoned, and thus unlikely to get pregnant and abandon her research.

Jahme considers in panoramic detail the burgeoning of female primatologists in the past forty years, surveying the lives and work of Goodall, Galdikas, Dian Fossey, and scads of others. Never sentimental, she insightfully intertwines the personal with the professional. These women's outré sacrifices would seem to rival their scientific accomplishments. Galdikas, for instance, rescued and rehabilitated orphan orangutans in Kalimantan. The first, Sugito, slept with her each night and drenched her with his urine, "his strong fingers gouging her skin." The author's feminist perspective is less ironically detached (and less enriching) than was Donna Haraway's in Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989). Also, she is annoyingly chary of footnotes. Still, Jahme, an English primatologist, reveals much that is fascinating, from the controversial theories of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on the evolutionary significance of the female orgasm, based on her study of langur monkeys, to Sue Savage Rumbaugh's research on the linguistic talents of chimpanzees and bonobos. According to Jahme, 90 percent of primate sanctuaries are now supervised by women, and the listings in the World Directory of Primatologists are 62 percent female. She shows us how Leakey and his women disciples are, in a way, a self-designated and self-generating species — one formed by a man as well as by "his" feminists.


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