Thursday, October 20, 2016

Capuchin monkey flaking creates flaky editorial in the journal Nature

In an article posted on the journal Nature website yesterday, a team of scientists reported that Capuchin monkeys in Brazil engage in a kind of percussion with quartz pebbles that results in the creation of split cobbles and flakes that are sometimes conchoidal (Proffitt et al. 2016). The purpose of the behavior is mysterious, but the monkeys can bee seen liking the stones or the debitage from them.

It's an interesting article, but what really caught my attention was a strange editorial about the research, which was published in the current issue of the journal (Anonymous 2016). It's common, of course, for Nature to publish commentaries on major articles. They are written by experts in the field and are designed, I suppose, to provide both context for and insight into research, especially for readers who are not specialists in the field. Those commentaries are attributed to their respective authors (i.e., signed) and published in a section entitled "News and Views." The commentary on the flaking-monkey article, however, was published anonymously as an editorial before the appearance of actual article in print.

Editorials in Nature, as in other similar journals, normally address matters of science policy and ethics. I can't remember seeing an editorial that commented on an article in the issue unless there was some policy or ethical issue related to the article.  This seemed so strange to me that I flipped back through several issues to check my memory, and I couldn't find another instance like this one.

What, you ask, did the editorial say? I find it hard to pin down main point of the little essay, but perhaps the penultimate line summarizes it: "In the end, the activity of banging rocks together should be seen as precisely that, and not as the first, proleptic step towards the stars." That statement and similar ones could be read as an attempt to diminish the significance of the findings. I don't know if that was the intent of the editor, but I note that the editor did not say anything laudatory about the research.

Again strangely, the title of the editorial is different in the html and pdf versions of the journal. In the html version it is "One sharp edge does not a tool make:Capuchin monkeys have been observed smashing stones to produce flakes ­ — but why they do so remains a mystery." In the pdf it reads, "Sharp Practice: Monkeys can make tool-like objects, but that doesn't mean they know what they are doing."

What a mix of enigmatic weirdness! All in all, it is peculiar, perhaps extraordinary, that the editor of a journal, especially such a prestigious and prominent one, would publish such a vague, rambling, ambiguous, and possibly unflattering commentary on a research article published in their own journal. 

Anonymous (2016). Sharp Practice: Monkeys can make tool-like objects, but that doesn't mean they know what they are doing. Nature 538:290.

Proffitt, Tomos, Lydia V. Luncz, Tiago Falótico, Eduardo B. .Ottoni, Ignacio de la Torre, and Michael Haslam (2016). Wild Monkeys Flake Stone Tools. Nature doi:10.1038/nature20112.

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