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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Primate's Lament: Notes on a Semantic Misunderstanding

My mood free-fell from enchantment to despair when I discovered that my just-purchased 2007 field guide, What Shat That? (“Your guide to matching feces with their species”) had excluded human scat from its portfolio. There were moose and goldfish, rabbits and rhinos, and 46 other species, but not a Homo sapiens in sight. Perhaps to identify a specimen in the woods, we might consider it human if none of the 50 proves a match? You know, the process of elimination.

Practicality aside, why maroon Homo sapiens from this handy guide and its occupants—even in benign, oblivious neglect? The whole unpleasantness reminded me of one of my pet lexical peeves,  abuse of the word “primate.”  Homo sapiens, of course, along with monkeys, apes, lemurs, tarsiers, etc. are card-carrying members of the primate order. But for many Homo sapiens, primates exclusively connote the hairier, quadrupedal members of the primate club. (i.e., everyone save us.)
Zoologists and others who watch their words deploy the differentiator,“nonhuman primates.” But as the Google Ngram graph below demonstrates, that neologism is way more recent than 
"primate” itself.  (No doubt, the coinage “nonhuman primates” was a rejoinder to sloppy language by human primates.)

Regrettably, the depiction of exclusively nonhuman primates on the covers of most primatology textbooks does nothing to rectify the situation. (The authors and their publishers should know better.)

There are, of course, exceptions:

And, even better, there is this book cover (and wonderful book) by the primatologist and essayist Robert Sapolsky. On the cover, Professor Sapolsky, primate, is at one with his and our heritage.  

Judging by his photo, I used to think Sapolsky was just a freaky guy. I still believe that, but I also think he is walking the primate talk—on behalf of us all. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I last saw Sapolsky at the new science building at UMass a few years ago. He's a baboon guy (hairy scientist who studies baboons) and he was speaking on Toxoplasmosis - the protist parasite that makes mice want to be eaten by cats.

In spite of the deep resistance of most Homo sapiens to consider themselves anything other than a unique and exceptional creation of God (the celestial primate of astronomical heft), the field of Evolutionary Psychology continues to grow and irritate the defenders of anthropocentrism.