Dale Peterson

Dale Peterson

Dale Peterson (b. November 20, 1944) is an American author who writes about scientific and natural history subjects.


Early Life and Education

Dale Alfred Peterson was born and raised in Corning, a small town known for glass manufacturing in western New York State. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1967 (BA in English and Psychology), then began graduate studies at Stanford University, first in the writing program under Wallace Stegner, later in the English Department. Stanford awarded him a Ph.D. in English and American Literature in 1977.[1]


The Vietnam War caused a break in graduate studies, however. As a conscientious objector, Peterson was assigned to alternative service in 1971 at a large U. S. Veterans’ Administration hospital, working as an attendant on a lock-up ward for severely disturbed or mentally ill patients, many of them diagnosed as schizophrenic. He wrote a novel loosely based on his experiences, which was never published, and began work on a non-fiction treatment of the social and psychological experiences of the mentally ill. That study became an insider’s history of mental illness based on autobiographical accounts of madness written during the nearly five and a half centuries between 1436 and 1976: published at last as A Mad People’s History of Madness (1982).[2]

After receiving the doctorate, meanwhile, he turned to carpentry, becoming a high-end finish carpenter engaged in remodeling houses in Silicon Valley, incidentally developing some friendships and connections with various people in the computer industry. Steve Jobs, a young man who had recently started his own hi-tech company named after a piece of fruit, for example, gave him one of the early Apple II computers.

Using that remarkable little machine as a word processor, Peterson turned away from carpentry and settled down to writing, first with four books about computers (personal computers, computers in the arts and education, and programming). In partnership with John O’Neill, a fine artist from London who had emigrated to California in order to design artistic games, he also helped create a computer game on the theme of interspecies communication, The Dolphins’ Pearl, which was released in 1984.[3]

The Dolphins’ Pearl marked Peterson’s turn away from intelligent machines and towards intelligent animals. He decided to write about primates, a subject he then learned about through library research combined with a long and arduous trip—by plane, bus, boat, and on foot—into tropical forests around the world: going from southeastern Brazil and down the Amazon River; to West, Central, East Africa, and Madagascar; and from there to southern India, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Mentawai Islands. His proximate goal was to find the twelve most endangered primates (monkeys, apes, and prosimians) in the world. His ultimate goal was to write a book about those animals and their fate. Published in 1989, The Deluge and the Ark: A Journey into Primate Worlds was short-listed for the Sir Peter Kent Conservation Prize in Britain.

It also attracted the attention of Dr. Jane Goodall, the pioneering primatologist, who went on to join Peterson in writing a book about the ethical issues of using chimpanzees in captivity and the conservation problems threatening chimpanzees in the wild. Translated into Chinese, German, and Polish, Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People (1993) was distinguished as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Library Journal Best of the Year.[4]

With Harvard University biological anthropologist Professor Richard Wrangham, Peterson co-authored the classic evolutionary study of human violence Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1996), which has been translated into nine foreign languages and honored by the Village Voice as Best of the Year. In 1995, meanwhile, he saw the publication of a light-hearted book about his travels into obscure parts of Africa looking for chimpanzees (Chimpanzee Travels), while a second travel book, describing a 20,000-mile road trip taken with his two children in the United States (Storyville USA) appeared in 1999.

Peterson also turned to biography. Through collecting and editing hundreds of her personal letters, he produced a highly personal, two-volume “epistolary autobiography” of Jane Goodall: Africa in My Blood (2000) and Beyond Innocence (2001). He next wrote Goodall’s only full (according to Nature magazine, the “definitive”) biography, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (2006). The New York Times honored it as a Notable Book of the Year, while the Boston Globe called it Best of the Year.[6]

During this general period, moreover, he joined forces with photographer Karl Ammann to tour Central Africa and produce a shocking exposé of the trade in ape meat, Eating Apes (2003), which was pronounced Best of the Year by the Denver Post, Discover, The Economist, and the Globe and Mail.[7] Subsequent African and Asian travels with photographer Ammann resulted in Elephant Reflections (2009) and Giraffe Reflections (2012). Additional recent works include The Moral Lives of Animals (2011) and a play for children entitled Jane of the Apes, which was co-authored with Randel Wright.

PEN New England

As a member of the executive board of PEN New England, Peterson has been active in promoting nature writing and writers through the creation of the Henry David Thoreau Prize for Literary Excellence in Nature Writing. Recent recipients of the prize include Gretel Ehrlich, E. O. Wilson, and Gary Snyder. Dale Peterson also lectures part-time in the English Department at Tufts University.[8]

List of Works

  • The Moral Lives of Animals (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011) ISBN 978-1596914247.
  • Elephant Reflections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
  • Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006) ISBN 978-0395854051
  • Eating Apes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
  • Beyond Innocence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Edited.
  • Africa in My Blood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000). Edited
  • Storyville USA (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).
  • Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996). Co-authored with Richard Wrangham.
  • Chimpanzee Travels (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1995).
  • Visions of Caliban (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993). Co-authored with Jane Goodall.
  • The Deluge and the Ark: A Journey into Primate Worlds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).
  • The Dolphins’ Pearl (Reston, VA: Admacadium / Reston Computer / Prentice-Hall, 1985). Co-designed with John O’Neill.
  • CoCo Logo (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1985).
  • Intelligent Schoolhouse: On Computers and Learning (Reston, VA: Reston, 1984). Edited.
  • Genesis II: Creation and Recreation with Computers (Reston, VA: Reston, 1983).
  • Big Things From Little Computers (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982).
  • A Mad People’s History of Madness (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982).


  1. Some biographical material from “What’s New: Tisch Library: Tufts University podcast interview, Jun 30, 2008
  2. See Reaume, Geoffrey. “Mad People’s History.” Radical History Review 2006 (94): 170-182.
  3. O’Neill, John, with Dale Peterson. The Dolphins’ Pearl. Reston, VA: Admacadium / Reston Computer / Prentice-Hall, 1985.
  4. “Notable Books of the Year 1993.” New York Times (Arts). Dec 5, 1993.
  5. McGrew, W. C. “Book Reviewed: Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man.” Nature 443 (26 Oct 2006).
  6. “100 Notable Books of the Year.” The New York Times (Books), Dec 3, 2006; Kenney, Michael. “The Best Nonfiction of 2006.” Boston Globe, Dec 3, 2006.
  7. “Best Books of the Year: Home Entertainment.” The Economist, Dec 4, 2003; “Reviews Best of 2003,” Discover, December, 2003
  8. http://ase.tufts.edu/english/faculty/peterson.asp

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