How scientific is the ape “mid-life crisis”?

I’ve written before (such as here) about my unease with interpreted behavioural studies, especially those that purport to show that other animals, usually near-relative primates, “share” with us mental characteristics such as empathy and jealousy.

My discomfort was not eased by last week’s trendy “scientific” news that apes may suffer from a “mid-life crisis” equivalent to our own.

According to the PHYS.ORG’s news report, researchers found that their ape subjects exhibited a “U-shaped” pattern of life satisfaction and happiness, with a familiar bottoming-out in the middle of their lives.

Even ignoring the obvious objection that a scientifically-defined “mid-life crisis” has not been firmly established as a part of the typical human experience, I was not impressed by the methodology of the current research.

An international team of economists and psychologists studied 508 great apes that live in zoos and animal sanctuaries in a number of countries. The researchers asked the animals’ keepers how happy the apes in their charge seemed to be. The survey results produced a distribution of reported ape self-satisfaction that described the anticipated “U-shape” of the typical life experience of humans who suffer from a “mid-life crisis.”

Are you getting a little uncomfortable, too? First, the subject animals were all captive apes. None of the primates lived or was observed in their natural environments. Second, the “data” of the study was the second-hand reports of (mostly) untrained observers, who were asked to assess the apes in highly anthropomorphized terms.

The exclusive use of captive animals helped to generate the most outlandish conclusion claimed by the researchers. PHYS.ORG quotes the lead economist, Professor Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick:

We hoped to understand a famous scientific puzzle: why does human happiness follow an approximate U-shape through life? We ended up showing that it cannot be because of mortgages, marital breakup, mobile phones, or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life. Apes also have a pronounced midlife low, and they have none of those.

Let’s get this straight. A single, essentially subjective assessment of near-relative primates living in artificial conditions proves not only that a “mid-life crisis” is a feature we share with apes, but also proves that the most commonly-cited cultural and environmental causes “cannot be” the actual causes?

This is “science” that’s so sloppy, with conclusions so disproportionate to results, that it can only add to the already-shaky status of interpreted behaviour research.

The second major flaw is endemic to interpreted behavioural research on all levels. You have to look for something, so you pretty much have to come into the field with pretty hefty preconceptions, expectations, and filtering biases. Add to this the fact that the present case necessarily relied on the untrained judgements of those closest to the animals, their keepers and tenders, and you pretty much have to have an even more dramatic skew factor.

Asking a zookeeper if his gorilla buddy is “happy” or “self-satisfied” strikes me as getting about as far away from empirical science as it’s possible to get.

To make it even worse, this study is “the first of its kind,” and “the authors knew their work was likely to be unconventional.” In other words, this suspect study isn’t another piece of (flawed but perhaps useful) data in a growing knowledge base on the subject. It’s the first of its kind.

For my money, for the sake of  science’s empirical integrity, it should also be the last of its kind.

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