Supplemental: Sometimes you just have to laugh with the Times!


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?

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.''
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.

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.''

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.''
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:

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.


  1. In a rational world, investigations are conducted to untangle puzzles like this. Newspapers report the various theories. More importantly, they put the basic facts on the table.

    They put all the basic facts on the table. And they don’t invent any facts.

    Was the alleged chimp study a “ruse?” That’s one of the possibilities.

    That said, this theory hasn’t been proven. It’s entirely possible that this isn’t what happened at all.

    That theory hasn’t been proven. Meanwhile, another possibility hasn’t yet been disproven. ''They haven't established lack of human interference.''

    Data were collected and analyzed that week;... They also described the rationale for the alleged chimp study. They described its preliminary findings.

    For whatever reason, actual data were being collected that week.

    That data collection is part of what happened that week—unless you read the New York Times, whose reporters have made no attempt to include these basic facts in their account of what happened. In the Times, reporters haven’t even described the rationale for the alleged chimp study—and the rationale makes a form of sense, unless you read the Times.

    But so far, the truth of this story hasn’t been demonstrated—except in the New York Times, where the motive has been “revealed” and the collection of data has been removed from view.

    (Taken entirely from previous Howler tales of studies mangled by the New York Times. Words were changed to blame killer primates and protect well intentioned but unreliable New Jersey government employees.)

  2. Nope war has nothing to do with DNA. Nope.

  3. Must trolls turn every topic into an attack on Somerby? This post discusses an interesting topic. It also illustrates how scientific debate works. Why isn't that interesting?

    We study chimps because they are our closest neighbor species in evolutionary terms. If war were innate you would expect to see much more of it than we do. This is neither a silly study nor a silly debate. If researchers can figure out why chimps kill, they can suggest how to reduce human homicide.

    Several centuries ago the answer to every question was that the behavior was innate. If you suggest that today you must specify both the evolutionary pressures and the genetic mechanism involved, with evidence.

    1. Who reasons better? Chimps or human followers of Bob?

    2. Well, Bob doesn't seem to be treating it very seriously hence the headline: "Supplemental: Sometimes you just have to laugh with the Times!" and this pithy line: "Most of this nation’s chimps are in zoos. Has lethal violence found its way there, despite all our lead abatement?"

    3. Well Bonobos are equally close to humans as chimps.

      Bonobos, unlike chimps, solve social issues through sex rather than violence. Lots and lots of sex, in various forms with various partners.

    4. Somerby was a philosophy major. Some go on to become bioethicists or to study science and society, but I have seen not much indication Somerby appreciates science, especially social science. I think his occasional jibes at research and professors are a weakness of this blog. Perhaps they are a reflection of the feelings of the larger public. There is an article today about the decreases in research funding and how it is affecting serendipitous discovery, such as the importance of moderate touch to development of premature babies. It talks about how the new findings emerged unexpectedly from a failed rat study, illustrating that even studies that fail in their original goal can produce important new knowledge.

    5. Bob's pseudo liberal dirty little secret:

      Somerby's attitude toward higher education is merely his snobbish elitist way of aping the general public's attitude toward public education.

      He doesn't really like average professors and their ratty research.

    6. And just what's wrong with ratty research?

    7. Ratty research is expensive. That money could be better spent to support blog commenters. :)

    8. You're against spending it to help premature babies?

  4. Could the missing 3,000 years explain why there are no black velvet paintings of Jesus with his pet dinosaurs?

    E/R to R. Maddow

  5. "Has lethal violence found its way there, despite all our lead abatement."

    Great point!