BOZO OF A BABOON: Robert
did I get from Brooklyn to hanging out with this Bozo of a baboon
in a national park in East Africa?
I've noticed that about three-quarters of the people who wind up doing zoological
fieldwork grew up in the field; their parents were researchers or missionaries,
and they inherited the family business. The other quarter grew up in some total
hell-hole of an urban neighborhood and at some point managed to stumble into
the Natural History Museum. They became captivated by the first glass case
they saw, and decided that they would study geckoes or horseshoe crabs forever.
My experience happened to focus on non-human primates. I grew up in a horrendous
neighborhood in Brooklyn that's mostly famous for the worst tribal violence
west of Kosovo. The notion that there are places where you can learn about
natural history and that you can actually get the hell out of Brooklyn was
very appealing to me.
I became interested in natural history when I was eight years old. My parents
saw it as a passing phase—and still do. It's an annual question from
my mother: "Does that mean you're not going back to Africa, now that you
have a Ph.D.?" or "... now that you have a faculty job?" or "...
now that you're married and have kids?"
My father was an architectural historian, so I was pulled into archaeology
and an obsession with Egyptology very early. I could easily have gone the dinosaur
route, but instead absolutely turned to primatology. George Schaller's book,
The Year of the Gorilla, documenting the first fieldwork with gorillas he did
over six months in the 50s, convinced me. Today people do 30-year-long studies,
but at the time this was a landmark. The idea that you can live in hiking shoes
in a tent with a population of primates was galvanizing to me. By the time
I was ten, I was sending fan letters to primatologists. I still run into some
of them at meetings, and although they're all retired now, they remember the
crayon-scrawled letters that they'd get from me now and then.
By the time I got to Harvard, I was all set to do nothing but primatology.
I was studying bioanthropology in the fall of my freshman year when E. O. Wilson
published Sociobiology and it was the required text in four out of five of
my classes. This was the period of Gould, Trivers, Lewontin, Skinner, and Chomsky
all battling with each other, and there were amazing intellectual fireworks.
It was a totally fascinating period, because it was just incredibly contentious
stuff. Richard Herrnstein was there at the time doing his IQ heritability stuff
in the middle of the Cyril Burt scandal. Burt had done all of the classic studies
on IQ heritability for 50 years in the UK, almost single-handedly created a
stratified educational system in Britain, and had died a few years before.
He had been knighted, and was as honored as you could possibly be, but right
around that time it became fairly convincing that he had fabricated a large
percentage of his life's work.
This wasn't just fudging a number or cleaning up the data—he invented
nonexistent collaborators and co-authors. All his research hammered on the
point that IQ is highly heritable. It was a very contentious period. Every
evening all of us would be screaming at each other at the dinner table over
subjects like this, and there were dormitory lecture series by various gray
beards and various fights running. One week Chomsky would come and we would
spend the next week being Chomskyites, and the next week B. F. Skinner would
come and we'd be Skinnerians the week after. We eventually got a sense of the
sheer personalities of these people.
Richard Lewontin was fascinating. He was one of the most ideologically consistent
people I've ever seen, in terms of his leftist views, ones that I agree fairly
heavily with. It takes a lot of work to do abstract basic science in such a
way that every step clearly reflects your notion of what the world is like
and what aspects need to be remedied.
At some point my house at Harvard was looking for a new housemaster. The usual
deal was to get someone appointed who promised new carpets or some such improvement.
A bunch of us decided that we needed to seize control and select our next housemaster
and decided that it was going to be Lewontin. I was actually sent to interview
him, and he came up with all these crazy, wonderfully communalist schemes.He
was going to set up a repository of term papers in the house so that anybody
could consult any paper and copy it, for example. Word eventually trickled
down from on high that he was most certainly not going to be the next housemaster,
and that we should just forget about it. It was not clear he had any desire
to be our housemaster, or if this was more nose-thumbing, but he was a formidable
political presence, and one of the radiating bodies on the scene there.
A lot of those fires have cooled down. Herrnstein had a last salvo with The
Bell Curve just before he died, but the most contentious neo-'60s intellectual
scientific debates in the '70s died down. There are still spurts, but in a
lot of ways it became fairly clear at the far left end that it's a pretty optimistic
endeavor to think that science is going to do a whole lot of social good. Most
of the steam has come out of that idea.