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Primates in the Real World

Escaping Primate Folklore and Creating Primate Science
Georgina M. Montgomery

BUY Cloth · 176 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813937366 · $25.00 · Sep 2015
BUY Ebook · 176 pp. · ISBN 9780813937403 · $25.00 · Sep 2015

The opening of this vital new book centers on a series of graves memorializing baboons killed near Amboseli National Park in Kenya in 2009--a stark image that emphasizes both the close emotional connection between primate researchers and their subjects and the intensely human qualities of the animals. Primates in the Real World goes on to trace primatology’s shift from short-term expeditions designed to help overcome centuries-old myths to the field’s arrival as a recognized science sustained by a complex web of international collaborations. Considering a series of pivotal episodes spanning the twentieth century, Georgina Montgomery shows how individuals both within and outside of the scientific community gradually liberated themselves from primate folklore to create primate science. Achieved largely through a movement from the lab to the field as the primary site of observation, this development reflected an urgent and ultimately extremely productive reassessment of what constitutes "natural" behavior for primates.

An important contribution to the history of science and of women’s roles in science, as well as to animal studies and the exploration of the animal-human boundary, Montgomery’s engagingly written narrative provides the general reader with the most accessible overview to date of this enduringly fascinating field of study.


Montgomery argues that the general public’s ravenous interest in primate research (and what it might or might not tell us about being human) provided scientists with both a boon and a burden. Public fascination created a ready audience for primatologists’ research findings but also necessitated a constant struggle against popular myths. In her cogently argued, highly readable book, Montgomery explores this dual nature through a series of engaging episodes from Darwin to the present.

Erika Lorraine Milam, Princeton University, author of Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology

Lucidly and incisively Georgina Montgomery charts the creation and transformation of the science of primatology through the twentieth century and on up to the present. Her cast of actors is rich, and she offers an inspiring and astute analysis of the ways in which the boundaries and hierarchies between and among them have changed or even dissolved as the science of primatology developed. Women scientists became leaders in the science, field scientists demonstrated the crucial importance of their practices along with the practices of the lab scientists, indigenous observers emerged as integral participants in long-term, transnational investigations. Meanwhile, the ‘boundary’ between human and non-human primates has become ever more elusive. All those who are intrigued about how humans have come to make sense of their closest animal relatives should welcome this book.

Richard W. Burkhardt Jr., Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, author of Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology

[A] most illuminating and well-written book. I highly recommend Primates in the Real World to everyone interested in the interaction between science and popular culture, the spatial aspects of knowledge making, and the changing Western perceptions of nonhuman animals.


About the Author(s): 

Georgina M. Montgomery is Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University and the coeditor of Making Animal Meaning.

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