Getting to know the Country Day faculty: Dr. Parish, anthropologist and English teacher


Jacob Kaplan, Editor-In-Chief

Our faculty at Country Day come from diverse and amazing backgrounds. Dr. Parish, a relatively new Upper School English teacher, is an anthropologist and primatologist, meaning that she studies the evolution of human and other primate social interactions. Dr. Amy Parish has been working with primates and bonobos in particular since 1989 and has known a single bonobo female for almost 30 years! She is a lecturer at the University of Southern California and has travelled around the world researching and collecting data about bonobos and other primates. She uses her findings to make comparisons to human interactions today and possibly solve some of humanity’s problems. I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Dr. Parish and talking with her as she hooked and reeled me into listening to her within the first few moments with her powerful elaborations and examples of the fascinating and little-known species of matriarchal primate, the bonobo.

Jacob: Good morning!

Dr. Parish: Good morning!

Jacob: What is your favorite part of teaching AP Language? Your favorite book to teach?”

Dr. Parish: “It is hard to pick just one; right now we are reading Zeitoun, it’s by Dave Eggers and it’s the story of one person’s experience during Hurricane Katrina. It is particularly relevant in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma and even Hurricane Jose. It gives us the chance to explore social justice issues in the context of a natural disaster. This is important as often the most economically challenged social groups are the most devastated by catastrophe. We explore current events as we read important works of nonfiction. We will read Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle next. It is one of my top five favorite books of all time. The themes, the writing style, and the take-home message make it a book everyone should read. Last year Boyle agreed to tweet with the class for an hour. It was an incredible honor as he is a highly-esteemed novelist and short story writer.  He won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.”


Jacob: “Why do you find studying primates and bonobos in particular so intriguing?”  

Dr. Parish: “Bonobos and other chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. We evolved from them about six million years ago, or so. I’m an anthropologist, which means I study human biology and history. We can study our closest relatives to learn about our own evolution and to understand human behavior and adaptation. They [bonobos] have matriarchal affiliations with females forming friendships and groups to attack males and dominate them. That was my discovery and one of my most important contributions to the field. I’ve been studying [bonobos] since 1989 and I have a project in Germany, at the Stuttgart Zoo which houses bonobos. Like us, bonobos like to watch television and they have a tv in their enclosure. I made films for them to watch and I study who gets to pick, what they choose, their reactions, and if it affects their long-term behaviors. This could help answer questions like: does watching violence make you more violent?”

Jacob: “Wow, that’s so interesting! I didn’t know that. And what a good segway into my next question: have you ever studied bonobos up-close in their natural environment instead of in a zoo?”

Dr. Parish: “Well, bonobos are native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it is often difficult to work there because of ongoing violence.”  

“That being said, I have done lot of fieldwork in Thailand with the white-handed gibbon, another species of primate. I worked in a rainforest there for two and a half years. That was an amazing experience…What else? I have taken public health students to Malawi and worked on the impact of HIV on children in a village there. My post-doctoral research was conducted in England and Germany.  So I have been really blessed to have opportunities to live and work, including conducting field work, in many parts of the world.”

Jacob: “Do you think that there are any similarities between human behavior, say in the English classroom, and the behavior of bonobos?”


Dr. Parish: “Believe it or not, knowledge about other primates is really useful in understanding human behavior. Honestly, it is not just with students that I see similarities. It’s all humans. When I lived in London, I used to watch people travel down the escalators to go to the “tube” (what they called their subway) after soccer games. They would use their hands to drum on the hollow metal divider between the up and down side of the escalator after a football [soccer] game, an action that is very chimp-like. Similarly, once here at school I brought my students to the library and I saw that they were touching each other and even grooming each other’s hair and I had to say: ‘Stop grooming each other and pay attention.’ That instance was especially like the bonobos and other primates that I work with.”    

Jacob: “Alright! That is all. Thank you and thanks for your time.”

Dr. Parish: “You are welcome!”  


Articles/podcasts that Dr. Parish has either written, participated in, or been mentioned in/used as a source include: