Memories of Cultural Primatology

When Georgia started presenting her chalk talk on that particularly humid Tuesday morning, I felt myself leave the room for just a few seconds. I was no longer in our room in the LSRC but on the ground level of Bell Tower house in a small projection room with eleven other students and one red-haired professor. It took only a microsecond for me to realize what was going on: I was having a flashback to my first semester Writing 101 class, “Can chimps have culture?”. A class I ultimately got stuck with due to scheduling difficulties and grew to despise, it was an experience I had tried to obliterate from memory yet I was here, dreaming about it. But just like that, I was back to reality and listening to Georgia talk about environmentally-induced stress in yellow baboons. Her chalk talk brought up some old memories and it made me think critically about how I view science outside of my own.

I grew to hate Writing 101 not because of my professor or her teaching quality but the students and the course content. It tore me to shreds and killed me internally every single time I had to force myself to read a research paper about chimpanzees, gorillas, and a number of assorted monkeys and their propensity for culture. I lost more and more hope for my intellectual future as a Blue Devil when I would have to sit in a room full of closed mouths in the middle of a class discussion we were supposed to have. But more than anything it was the primates. I just couldn’t stand reading about them. All the research began to blend together and paper after paper seemed to be talking about the exact same thing. I thought they would never be a part of my life again but they came back with Georgia.

She was describing her research project: analyzing the glucocortisol levels in the fecal matter of yellow baboons in different environmental contexts to assess stress levels. She was talking about primates again and I really thought my eyes were going to roll to the back of my head and not come back until she was finished. But just the opposite was happening: I was interested. I cared about how food conditions and hierarchy could affect yellow baboons in such a way as to induce stress. I was engaged and even asked how this research might pertain to humans: due to the fact that the two species share more than 90% of their DNA, understanding stress responses in yellow baboons might allow us to understand them more in humans. At the end of it I realized that other than that memory of Writing 101 at the beginning, I had managed to pay attention to the whole talk.

Why was that? Why was I suddenly engaged and interested in an area of research that I despised just a few months ago? I didn’t know it but the answer was simple: I had been engaged effectively in this research for the first time. While my professor had taken us through stacks of research articles in the study of primates, I had always felt detached from the research. I knew about all these studies and their impacts but I was struggling to see the “So what?” in what I was studying. Georgia changed that for me. She had contextualized interesting research in primates for me and made me understand that it was a real, living scientific field with important implications in the real world. I couldn’t feel detached from this research anymore because it was staring me in the face. Someone was finally talking about it with excitement in their voice and vigor in their conviction. For this, I thank Georgia. In the future, I now know that I can avoid the pitfall of detaching and even resenting a field of scientific research just because I think it isn’t interesting. It’s a matter of going to people that know how to communicate their science and have them show you just why their work is interesting, a lesson for all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *