It is a long standing saying* that the pantheon of primatology is essentially the Justice League of America, with Jane Goodall as Superman, the inspiring and morally upright founding figure, Dian Fossey as Batman, the earnest champion grappling with dark forces, and Birute Galdikas as Wonder Woman, steady and indestructible.

And while that is all true, for me growing up the Justice League was all about the calm and unflappable voice of the Martian Manhunter, who brought method and analysis to the raw power of the main trio. And so, while history’s focus has rested largely on the “Trimates,” my favorite primatologist has to be Jeanne Altmann (1940 – ), who fostered theretofore unheard-of statistical rigor through her studies of baboon mother-infant interactions, and changed field studies forever by her example.

Jeanne AltmannBy the mid-1970s, when Altmann began her epoch-making studies of baboon mothers in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, primatology had come a long way already from its “We’ll light a ring of fire around the apes and scare them into a clearing to observe their behavior” beginnings. Goodall had introduced her habituation techniques in the early 1960s, which relied on slowly allowing primates to become used to one’s presence, even if that meant initial months of observing nothing much but retreating primate rear ends. That approach yielded phenomenal results, including the observation of primate tool use and meat consumption.

Even so, primatologists still had a disturbing tendency to be distracted by behavior that they found interesting, giving more attention to primates that acted out in remarkable ways, and spending correspondingly less time observing the rank and file, undemonstrative individuals who didn’t go in for lavish histrionics at every social encounter. What was desperately needed was somebody who would bring the observational rules of statistical sampling to bear on the problems of field observation, who would tell the biologists how to collect behavioral data in a way that didn’t skew it in the direction of drama apes.

But that would require a scientist not only well versed in the techniques of field work and behavioral studies, but possessing the mathematical heft of a pure statistician. It required Jeanne Altmann. She had begun her studies at UCLA as a mathematician, one of only three women in the department at the time. In spite of her skills, she was not assigned an advisor because nobody on the faculty felt it worth their time to mentor a woman mathematician.

After marrying Stuart Altmann, a progressive primate researcher, she transferred to MIT (he was at Harvard at the time) and ultimately to the University of Alberta, developing new mathematical techniques that harnessed the raw power of computers just then opening up. She learned to program and to apply her statistical knowledge to the field research of her husband so that, year by year, she transformed herself slowly from a mathematician who happened to look at behavioral studies on occasion to a first rank field biologist who happened to have more statistical chops than anybody in the business.

She observed baboons in Kenya with a steadfast devotion to statistical regularity, randomly selecting two mother-infant pairs each day and observing them for 15 minutes out of each hour, taking detailed records of actions and interactions, noting passivity and inaction with as much rigor as the most intriguing behaviors because, statistically, everything is important and necessary. Her 1974 paper, “Observational Study of Behavior Sampling Methods,” revolutionized the way behaviors were sampled and recorded in the field, giving the results of field observation a sure mathematical weight that was demonstrated definitively in her 1980 book, Baboon Mothers and Infants.

She transformed herself slowly from a mathematician, who happened to look at behavioral studies on occasion, to a first rank field biologist who happened to have more statistical chops than anybody in the business.

It’s a magnificent volume, bristling with inventive ways of collecting data without interfering with animal behavior, and of utilizing computers to churn the resulting numbers into trends that can be analyzed for statistical significance. When Altmann hazards an opinion about the significance of a behavioral trend, you know it is backed by the highest statistical scrutiny. There are beautiful error bars on every chart, and detailed explanations of the type of analysis employed to develop her equations. That approach has left its fingerprints everywhere in behavioral studies, and brought the field of primatology into its robust adulthood.

But enough about math, let’s talk baboons, and what Altmann’s analysis uncovered about their world. At the start of her studies, baboons represented what many had thought was a “solved” species. Since males are dominant in baboon social structures, researchers had focused more or less exclusively on them and their behavior, and it was generally felt that we had learned what we were going to learn about them. Altmann, however, was intrigued by the female baboons – how do they parent? How do different parenting strategies affect their survival ability? How does the weaning process work? What are the dynamics of social interactions involving a new mother and her infant? How has evolution molded the instincts of parent and child to make sure that the child gets the amount of resources it needs without putting the parent in peril?

Those seem like obviously important questions now, but at the time they were considered as secondary issues, as behaviors of non-dominant and therefore less interesting, members of the society. But Altmann found a profound evolutionary puzzle at the heart of the mother-infant dyad. Being a baboon mother is not easy. Baboons spend most of their day walking and eating, every minute closely accounted for. When a female baboon gives birth, there is no down time to recover. Though exhausted from the effort, she is expected to keep up with the group, carrying her infant with one hand and doing her best to maintain pace while walking on her remaining three limbs. She has to provide nutrition and locomotion for herself and her growing child, a feat that requires a close calculus of resources to determine precisely when the child has grown too large to efficiently nurture any longer. And she has to do that her whole life long, there being no notable menopause to put a stop to the endless cycle of infant production. Seventy five percent of the female baboon’s life will be devoted to birthing and raising children.

Meanwhile, she has to navigate her complicated social structure, with higher ranking females invading her space and pulling at her newborn infant, sometimes even kidnapping it, and enters into alliances with males to keep curious baboons at bay so that she can rest and feed. She has to put up with tantrums from her offspring that, in their externals, are familiar to anyone who has raised a two year old human child. The children try and get as much of her resources as possible to increase their chances to survive, but she needs to calculate how much of her resources she can afford to give and still survive herself. It’s a close instinctual calculation that, mismeasured, leads to certain death in a landscape where resources are not always plentiful. At around six months, she begins the separation process, forcing the child to fend increasingly for himself, navigating his environment, making his own social connections, and finding his own food sources, because he is simply too large for her to provide his nutritional and locomotive needs without collapsing from exhaustion.

Altmann studied the fine-tuning of that mother-infant weaning process with clever non-invasive methods including mathematical analysis at first, and increasingly sophisticated chemical analysis of the hormonal contents of baboon feces later, to create a picture of the stresses and compensations of different approaches to parenting. Low-ranking females are put upon by just about everybody, and their parenting tends to be of the more restrictive variety, keeping the infants constantly within arm’s length. High-ranking females, however, tend towards the laissez-faire, letting their offspring caper about with an almost reckless level of freedom, and children, by and large, seem to inherit the social rank of their parents, and to perpetuate their parenting style as well.

We all become our parents, it seems.

Altmann’s work continued for four decades, peeling back the layers in the evolution of primate parenting strategies, and elucidating the fine balance of resource and time management required to survive using a K-type, few-offspring, long-immaturity approach to population management. Her marriage of math and behavior studies has proven a fruitful symbiosis, giving method to the latter and a foot on the ground to the former. Thanks to her professional rigor, we can profitably look with a sure gaze at the complicated world of the baboon, its social negotiations and micro-stresses, its massive demands and persistent quiet tragedies, and see the evolutionary precursors to many of our own curious foibles as parents and social actors.

There’s a bit of the baboon in the best of us.

* This is in no way a long standing saying.


FURTHER READING: Altmann’s Baboon Mothers and Infants is a classic. You need a bit of a tolerance for graphs and statistical procedure explanations, but it is not overwhelming by any means, and each section has a nice summary that you can skip to if you just want the meat of her observations. She also has a chapter in Parenting Across the Life Span: Biosocial Dimensions (1986) which summarizes her baboon work and the work of her colleagues who focus on other primates in getting to the bottom of how monkeys and apes split parenting duties between the genders, and how big a role time and resource management plays in parenting strategies. There is, lamentably, no dedicated book about Altmann’s life.

**And for more awesome Women in Science comics check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Year One and Year Two.