Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Primate-Behavior Final Exam, Anyone?

May 6, 2011

Thick-headed with grading final exams and final papers, I cannot manage a proper blog-post this Friday. At this time of year, with senior grades needed by the registrar before commencement day, the faculty is compelled to work at speed. We tend to hole up with our motivators of choice (mine all involve chocolate) and get the job done thoughtfully but in a compressed period of time.

Right now, it’s Primate Behavior essay finals that grab my attention. This year, that class was a joy to teach, one of the best in decades. With some few exceptions, my students seized upon and engaged with the material. Some chose to carry out original research at zoological parks and many transported our discussions about primate learning, language, and culture into new realms by offering their own knowledge and opinions rooted in biology, cultural anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology.

It was a strange sorrow when, in class, I was forced to say in the midst of some thriving collective conversation, “I’m sorry to cut the discussion short but if we don’t move on…” Now and again, the talk was just too good to stifle; I threw the syllabus schedule up in the air and let it fall where it might—and on we kept discussing.

In this context, the stack of exams in front of me strikes me as the students’ opportunities to shine, not some drab assessment exercise in which they convey back to me the basics of what I already know.

Five essay questions are on this year’s exam. My two favorites focus on culture and language respectively, and thus veer close to anthropology’s core. So, here they are, for anyone who is long out of school and craving a final-exam experience; who is tired of her own exam-taking or -grading and seeks a new avenue to walk mentally; or who just loves grappling with ideas about other primates. In the comment box, send me any thoughts you may have, however brief or exploratory!

*Present what you consider to be the most satisfactory working definition of culture as applied to nonhuman primates. What is the source of this definition? Analyze two possible examples of nonhuman primate culture, offering a conclusion as to whether these are, or are not, instances of culture.

*Has Kanzi the bonobo acquired language? Construct your answer by including material from the Segerdahl et al. book Kanzi’s Primal Language and at least one other primatology or anthropology source.

Playing with cool ideas like these is precisely why I love my work. But for now, my work is grading, grading, and more grading. See you on the other side.


  1. May 6, 2011 9:53 AM EDT
    Hi Barbara,
    May the other side of the grading, grading, grading, be that glorious research leave! I'm currently on the other side at the moment, nearing the end of a research-writing leave. My colleagues delight in reminding me that once they finish their grading for the semester, then my sabbatical is over, or at least we share the same summer ahead.

    So since I've been out of the classroom I may be suggesting something over-the-top, but my issue with the questions would be that they basically seem to keep us in the mode of culture-is-a-thing that you can have or not, language-is-a-thing that can be acquired or not. My preference would be for something more like "What does the debate about whether Kanzi has acquired language tell us about our presuppositions about what language is? Why have some people been so adamant that Kanzi and other non-human primates do not *really* have language?" Perhaps that takes it out of the range of a "primate behavior" exam?

    Great work--thanks for an inspirational blog!
    - Jason Antrosio
  2. May 6, 2011 11:09 AM EDT
    Jason, I hope your research-writing leave has been greatly productive, and feel sure it has. I love your comment about my exam questions; it reminds me of the danger of posting things like this without much contextual information.

    It's my own stance that language cannot be acquired as a thing, or culture either, and that a black-and-white presence/absence question for either is pretty sterile. In class, we read and compared the Andrew Whiten et al 1999 Nature paper on chimpanzee cultures with R. Sapolsky's Current Anthro paper on anubis-baboon culture (when so many males died and the baboon group in question transitioned to a much more peaceful state, a change that has been maintained over many years). We had a great discussion comparing the comparative merits of the population-based, check-list approach (Whiten et al's) to Sapolsky's focus on routine, daily behaviors as cultural.

    In the arena of language, the students read not only about Kanzi but also part of my The Dynamic Dance book, which argues at length that language (or information either) cannot be "acquired"... that again, as with culture, presence/absence is a limited way of looking at things.

    And so, happily, what my students are doing (I've now read 15 of 23 final exams) is taking up precisely the questions you mention! My hope was that in posing the questions the way I did, I was signaling that coherent arguing AGAINST what they know my own views to be will be as rewarded as coherently as arguing in ways consistent with those views.

    Anyway, it's useful that you asked, and if you still think the questions are too limited I'd like to hear back--
    - Barbara J. King
  3. May 6, 2011 11:28 AM EDT
    Hi Barbara,
    Thank you, this is fantastic! So you are actually hoping they will argue against the terms of the question and they are doing it. Wow! I'm impressed.
    - Jason Antrosio
  4. May 6, 2011 11:44 AM EDT
    Yes, but to clarify they don't HAVE to argue against the terms of the question- as long as they strongly support whatever position they do take.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.