September 14, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 32—Primate poop and angry Americans

When feeling defensive or angry, nonhuman primates have been known to throw their poop. But researchers from Indiana University have found a better use for primate feces. A recent study by researchers at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the IU Bloomington Department of Anthropology found primate feces could provide valuable insight into exposure to frequently used chemicals, giving scientists a better understanding of the threat to wildlife from chemical pollutants, even in remote locations. Scientists collected fecal samples from captive baboons in the United States, wild howler monkeys in Costa Rica, and baboons, chimpanzees, red-tailed monkeys and red colobuses in Uganda. They then tested each sample for the presence of over 100 pesticides and flame retardants, and their metabolites. Researcher Michael Wasserman says the majority of primate species today are threatened with extinction due to a number of factors. And while much research has explored the effects of habitat loss, forest fragmentation, logging and bushmeat hunting, little research has been conducted on the effects of pollution. Using fecal matter as a means of assessing environmental contamination that could also impact humans provides a valuable warning signal, says researcher Marta Venier. Because humans and primates share a recent common ancestry, with many similarities in physiology and some dietary overlap, nonhuman primates can serve as important sentinels for humans. So, if primates are exposed to chemical pollutants, the risk of human exposure is likely present for neighboring communities as well, researchers say. IU researchers plan to continue their work to further understand differences in chemical exposure by examining potential sources, like diet, as well as various traits, including body size, and ecological factors, such as forest coverage, that may influence chemical exposure, excretion patterns and toxicity.

In other news, with the November election right around the corner, anger-filled political rhetoric, from both parties, is on the rise. And with persistent racial injustice, an ongoing pandemic and all that goes with it, America is angry. But Steven Webster, assistant professor of political science at IU, says while inciting voter anger helps candidates win elections, research shows that effects of anger outlast elections. And that can have serious consequences for American democracy. Webster says political anger lowers citizens’ trust in the national government, causing people to view it with hostility, skepticism and outright contempt. Due to the increasingly national focus of politics, he says that anger is often directed squarely at the federal government, not state or local officials, which creates a governance problem. Previous research has shown that trust facilitates bipartisan lawmaking and support for social welfare programs that seek to make society more equitable, among other policies, he says. But trust is on the decline, while anger causes Americans to adopt attitudes that run contrary to the democratic ideals of the nation. It makes Americans see supporters of the opposing political party as less intelligent than themselves. Arguably harmful for democracy, anger also makes people see supporters of the opposing political party as a threat to the country’s well-being, Webster says. Angry people generally want to blame somebody – or some group – for their problems, whether they are the real or perceived cause. Political campaigns, logically, work to elicit anger at the opposing party. This means that their supporters are quick to blame those who disagree with them for the country’s shortcomings. Consequently, Webster says voter anger causes politics to move beyond a competition of ideas and philosophies and into a zero-sum game in which each side’s gain is the other’s loss. That weakens people’s commitment to the democratic norms and values that have long been the linchpin of the U.S. political system, such as tolerance and a respect for minority opinions. While democracy may not disappear because candidates keep stoking Americans’ ire at each other and at the political system, anger is corrosive, Webster says. It diminishes the quality of American democracy well after the politicians who used anger as a campaign strategy have won and left office.