Last month an issue of Scientific American was published featuring a scholarly article from one of the University of Rhode Island’s very own professors, Holly Dunsworth.
Professor Dunsworth has been with the University of Rhode Island since fall of 2011. She holds a master’s in Biological Anthropology, with a focus in genetics and primates, and has done extensive field work on fossil apes in Kenya.
Her article entitled “Do Animals Know Where Babies Come From?” explores how even though some animals may behave in ways that lead us to believe they are capable of understanding reproduction, we can imply from observations of their reasoning, communication and planning skills that they do not exhibit the cognitive abilities necessary for fully comprehending that offspring are a direct result of sex.
This publication has been in the works for several years now. Before pitching the idea in 2014, Dunsworth had been interested in researching the topic as evidence for “The Baby Makers,” a book she is in the process of co-writing, in order to establish a foundation and follow the evidence to reinforce the assumptions she wished to make in the book.
“I wrote the article a couple years before pitching it,” Dunsworth said. “Originally it was for my book but I realized if I shortened it and edited down, some of it would make an engaging article,”
Dunsworth was always interested in the reproductive behavior of animals and their understanding of it. While working with live primates in zoos to study their energetic budget, she began to think more about it, saying “when you spend two summers staring at gorillas and measuring their movement by counting their steps, you start to think about a lot of other things.”
In regards to her fascination with reproduction she says,“but who isn’t interested in sex? It’s like pizza. It’s really hard to find someone that isn’t interested in pizza.”
A majority of the research that went into the article came from readings, while Dunsworth is the first to explore this topic, other researchers have made points about primates and their cognitive abilities that allowed her to reach her own conclusion.
Three arguments are made to prove that nonhuman primates do not understand reproduction: no apparent evidence of abstract reasoning, limited communication and an inability to plan for more than short periods of time. Each of these claims supports Dunsworth’s thesis in that to comprehend an unobservable phenomena such as impregnation one has to be capable of abstract reasoning, unless every single primate individually discovers that sex leads to offspring they would need to be told about it through communication, and lastly nonhuman primates show no ability of planning for longer than brief periods and could not plan an entire gestation process.
“When I had written what I thought was right, I sent it to one of the researchers I cited asking if he thought what I had said was accurate and he pretty much said yeah, definitely, bravo,” explained Dunsworth, “And that made me feel better, he agreed with the whole story, not just the part he was cited in, and I felt secure.”
From there it was read by the experts, passed by the editors and thoroughly inspected by the professional fact checkers at Scientific American.
“It took two years after the pitch for it to be published, which I was upset about, but the more the professionals go through it, the more you’re on people’s radar, the more connections you make,” said Dunsworth, “I won’t name them, but a terrific science writer gave me some advice. They told me it took three, almost four, years between their pitch being accepted and the actual publication in National Geographic, and I felt better about my publication”
In September of 2012, Scientific American reached out to her for permission to share one of her blog posts on their site, however the January 2016 issue is the first print version of the magazine in which she is published and compensated for.
As an anthropologist, Dunsworth’s ultimate motivation for writing this is about finding what kind of signature knowing how reproduction works has left on evolution, “If nonhuman primates could comprehend where babies come from they’d behave more like us, so how has knowing affected our evolution? Knowing affects how reproduction works and how evolution unfolds. If they knew, they’d plan their pregnancies, there would be less infanticide among gorillas, families would be more involved in the pregnancies and females may even try to abort if the baby was sired by an undesirable mate.” She explains.
While her “obsession with reproduction” as she referred to it, began over ten years ago, it has been further fueled by the birth of her son, although she says, “I already had so much interest in exploring this topic before he was even a twinkle in my eye, so he was a little late to the party, but he definitely contributed a lot to my recent interest.”
Dunsworth is currently working on co-writing “The Baby Makers,” which will explore the evolutionary impacts of procreative beliefs and her article, “What Do Animals Know About Where Babies Come From”, can be found in the January 2016 issue of Scientific American.