Saturday, February 09, 2013

Of Great Apes and Girl Scouts

In 2011, I got riled up about misrepresentation, and Nature decided not to print my letter... as cookie season descends upon us again, I thought I'd just put this out there in the blogosphere. Sometimes a pub is not the point.
[I must point out that I think weblinks have moved, and that this blog platform seems to be horribly buggy at the moment... hopefully that won't undermine this piece]

Of Great Apes and Girl Scouts

Dear Sirs

A campaign to preserve the endangered Orangutan (Pongo spp.) through reduction in palm oil consumption has arisen in the USA through a very unusual path: the Girl Scouts. Two Girl Scouts in Michigan, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, conducted a project in 2007 on Orangutans in Borneo, for their Girl Scout Bronze Award. They discovered that palm oil plantations were responsible for Orangutan habitat destruction, and that Girl Scout cookies were chock full of palm oil. In March, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) partnered with the 15 year-old Girl Scouts in petitioning Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) to remove palm oil responsible for tropical deforestation from the cookies1. As part of this campaign, RAN has helped develop a new Girl Scout Merit Badge - the Rainforest Hero Badge - which involves research and campaigning for the cause. 

In the US, Girl Scouts and their cookies are a national cultural icon, and GSUSA provides an education opportunity for young women, promoting values such as leadership. As a conservation biologist, I am thrilled to see this campaign with such a large and iconic force behind it. However, in reading the merit badge materials I came across the words "...the survival of humankind’s closest  relative, orangutans."2 The genetic evidence for the closest relative of humans has gone back and forth in the literature 3-5, and will no doubt continue to be contentious as long as we are interested in our evolutionary history. In a brief email to RAN, I suggested they use more conservative language, including orangutans in a group: "great apes, our closest relatives". They have no intention of changing the wording. 

This, therefore, is my dilemma: a great cause, supported by contended information3, facing the enormity of multinational corporations such as Cargill and Kellogg. If climate change science faces bombastic scrutiny and incessant attempts at discreditation, surely this will be similarly scorned for lack of scientific accuracy? Will this undermine the credibility of the cause? Do I encourage my little sister to get this merit badge and campaign for the cause, or do I wax academic about the correct phylogeny of the Hominidae?

1          Surtherlin, L. & Schaeffer, A. Girl Scouts: Cookies Cut Down Rainforests <> (2011).

2          Network, R. A. Rainforest Hero Badge Kit, <> (2011).

3          Lehtonen, S., Sääksjärvi, I. E., Ruokolainen, K. & Tuomisto, H. Who is the closest extant cousin of humans? Total-evidence approach to hominid phylogenetics via simultaneous optimization. Journal of Biogeography 38, 805-808 (2011).

4          Grehan, J. R. & Schwartz, J. H. Evolution of the second orangutan: phylogeny and biogeography of hominid origins. Journal of Biogeography 36, 1823-1844 (2009).

5          Locke, D. P. et al. Comparative and demographic analysis of orang-utan genomes. Nature 469, 529-533 (2011).




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