"But does a certain subjectivity hinder the advancement of science more generally? Japanese primatologists think not."Image by joe puengkaew from Pixabay

That science is, and must be, an objective process is a common and unfortunate misconception. Of course, we might like science to be a “process without a subject”, where truth can be ascertained independently of the observer, but there are many cases where this simply isn’t, and can’t be, the case.

Linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology… All suffer from the paradox of scientists studying, in effect, themselves. It is impossible for a psychologist to ponder the shortcomings of the human mind without being restricted by the very same. Sociologists and anthropologists can’t easily dissect human cultures without their own entering, unwelcomed, into the fray. Nor can linguists gather accurate linguistic data without inadvertently pressuring their subjects into speaking ‘properly’, simply by knowing they’re in the presence of a linguist.

Even outside of the social sciences, the last century has brought the realisation that even subatomic particles seem to know when they’re being watched, and behave accordingly.

All these instances seem to be problematic to the dogma of objectivity - of the separation between the observer and the observed - that Western science holds so dear. But does a certain subjectivity hinder the advancement of science more generally? Japanese primatologists think not.

Kinji Imanishi was a Japanese biologist who studied mayflies and horses, before he eventually stumbled across a troop of Japanese macaques with two then-students - Itani and Kawamura - in 1948. This singular event led to his serendipitous conversion from ecologist and entomologist to a pioneering primatologist. His previous work on horses in Mongolia and Japan was unusual for his emphasis on the individuality of the horses - he could recognise them all by name - and it was this novel approach to research, applied to primatology, that led to a mini-revolution in his wake.

Japanese primatology is, even now, characterised by the central question, first proposed by Imanishi: “Where did human society come from?” Compared to Western primatology, with its focus on medical research and ‘neutral’ observation of captive animals, Japanese primatology is far more individualistic and, yes, subjective. The intellectual descendants of Imanishi create mutual attachments with primates, handing out food (‘provisioning’) to secure their place as an honorary member of the troop and assign unique nicknames to each individual.

“What we learn from Japanese primatologists is an important lesson everywhere in science: that culture is an important, if invisible, aspect of an individual’s life, and has a profound ability to shape the course and ethic of their work.”

So successful was this subjective primatology that it allowed the first observations of a sort of non-human culture to be made by Masao Kawai. In September 1953, “Imo”, a Japanese macaque, was observed washing a sweet potato in a freshwater stream before eating it. Though seemingly mundane to us, this original behaviour spread like wildfire through the troop until, in 1959, every member of the troop washed their potatoes before eating. During this time, Imo’s troop even started washing potatoes in the sea instead of in freshwater, seeming to prefer the salty flavour.

Kawai’s observations of a sweet potato washing show three behavioural traits (emergence, transmission, and modification) necessary (though perhaps, alone, insufficient) for culture. Not only this, but Kawai noted something interesting: younger macaques, like Imo (only 18 months old at the time of her great invention), were far more likely to learn sweet potato washing than older macaques. This is a perfect analogy for what we readily observe in human society, where older generations conserve the practices of their younger days in the face of an evolving culture among the youths.

Kawai was a vocal proponent of a concept called kyokan in Japanese, which roughly translates to “feel at one with”, and in primatology entails integrating oneself into the culture of non-human primates in order to be able to make accurate, detailed, and meaningful observations. The success of this principle is obvious from his ability to make novel observations of, for example, sweet potato washing in Imo’s tribe, as well as other culturally-spreading behaviours such as the sifting of seeds from sand in water (also originated by Imo - apparently the Einstein of Japanese macaques!) where the seeds float and the sand sinks, allowing for a quick and easy meal by the beach.


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What we learn from Japanese primatologists is an important lesson everywhere in science: that culture is an important, if invisible, aspect of an individual’s life, and has a profound ability to shape the course and ethic of their work. There are, perhaps, a few cultural reasons why Japanese primatologists have set for themselves a unique standard amongst primatologists.

Firstly, Japan is the only G8 nation to have its own native non-human primates. In the West, we are forced either to travel and spend usually relatively short periods of time studying primates in the wild or, for long-term observation and controlled experimentation, to sustain captive populations in research facilities. Japan has a unique combination of economic wealth, a thriving academic environment, and its very own primates, making in situ observation not only possible but also sustainable and simple.

“The early Japanese primatologists... recognised the need to embrace the subjective in their treatment of such complex...animals as primates, and thus proved to the world that science need not be a dogmatically objective and neutral endeavour.”

Secondly, Japan does not share an indigenous Judeo-Christian religion with the vast majority of the West, and the major Japanese religions of Buddhism and Shinto have quite different influences on science and society than does Christianity in the West. For example, only around than 30% of Japan follow some religion, compared to 70% in the USA. Given that opposition to evolution and our common origin with the other great apes comes largely, if not almost exclusively, from its clash with Judeo-Christian creation narratives, it is not surprising that a form of primatology founded on the question “Where did human society come from?” did not originate in the West.

The identities of scientists are inextricable from any practical scientific method. The early Japanese primatologists (Imanishi, Itani, Kawai and Kawamura) recognised the need to embrace the subjective in their treatment of such complex, conscientious, and cultured animals as primates, and thus proved to the world that science need not be a dogmatically objective and neutral endeavour. Western scientists need a little more kyokan in their lives - as, perhaps, do we all.

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