Which part of the Ngogo group don’t you understand: This morning, we were hard at work reading our “National” section in the New York Times.
Suddenly, it happened! Beneath the report about testosterone drugs, a headline caught our eye:
“Lethal Violence in Chimps Occurs Naturally, Study Suggests”
Based on that headline, it seemed like the study hasn’t nailed anything down. But the study was at least prepared to suggest that violent chimps have absolutely no one to blame but themselves!
We’ll admit it—they had us at “lethal violence in chimps.” We had no idea why a report of this type was in our “National” section.
Most of this nation’s chimps are in zoos. Has lethal violence found its way there, despite all our lead abatement?
As it turned out, the report concerned a lively debate among the nation’s scientists. As he started, reporter James Gorman described the state of play:
GORMAN (9/18/14): Are chimpanzees naturally violent to one another, or has the intrusion of humans into their environment made them aggressive?Based on the Ngogo group—it sounds a bit like a weekend talk show—it almost sounded like we humans were off the hook this time! Meanwhile, if anyone deserves to be violently angry with neighbors, it would have to be Dr. Wilson himself, what with all those co-authors.
A study published Wednesday in Nature is setting off a new round of debate on the issue.
There is no disagreement about whether chimpanzees kill one another, or about some of the claims that Dr. Wilson and his 29 co-authors make.
The argument is about why chimpanzees kill. Dr. Wilson and the other authors, who contributed data on killings from groups at their study sites, say the evidence shows no connection between human impact on the chimpanzee sites and the number of killings.
He said the Ngogo group of chimpanzees in Uganda ''turned out to be the most violent group of chimpanzees there is,'' even though the site was little disturbed by humans.
They have a pristine habitat, he said, and ''they go around and kill their neighbors.''
As always, things weren’t quite that simple. Some anthropologists aren’t willing to take Ngogo for an answer:
GORMAN (continuing directly): Robert Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University who supports the idea that human actions put pressure on chimpanzee societies that results in killings, was dismissive of the paper. ''The statistics don't tell me anything,'' he said. ''They haven't established lack of human interference.''It seems there’s a Sussman in every crowd, refusing to get with the program. If Howard Mortman were writing this piece, he would probably put it like this:
Brian Ferguson, an anthropologist at Rutgers University who has written extensively on human warfare and is working on a book about chimpanzee and human violence, also argued that the measures of human impact were questionable. The study considered whether chimpanzees were fed by people, the size of their range and the disturbance of their habitat. But, Dr. Ferguson said, impact ''can't be assessed by simple factors.''
Why can’t he let it Ngogo?
With respect to Dr. Ferguson’s work, maybe it’s time for some pithy signage.
“Please don’t feed the Ngogo group!” Why should that be so hard?
Reporter Gorman powered along, even discussing Demonic Males, the lively 1996 text which studied the origins of human violence. Gorman closed with two quotes about chimps and war.
“War has nothing to do with what chimpanzees do,” one scholar suggestively said.