Monday, August 1, 2011

Primatology as Anthropology

For many years now, I have spent hours describing to friends and family members why I study primates and why it fits within the field of anthropology. Unfortunately, primatologists have the unenviable task of more eloquently answering the same question when posed during an interview for an academic position. Yet it remains clear that to some anthropologists, both old and young, primatologists are the black sheep of the family. Such is the tenuous position of primate studies within the anthropological view. As scientists who do not directly study humans within the “study of humans”, primatologists must consistently build and maintain the bridge between human/non-human and biological/social sciences. 

Primatological studies traverse a number of other academic disciplines (psychology, zoology, and biology), so what are the ties that bind primatology as an anthropological pursuit? The easy answer is that as members of the taxonomic Order Primates, we are obliged to understand the biological relationships between living and ancestral primates. However, phylogenetic ancestry should not be used as a trump card when asked to describe one’s academic alignment. Similarly, our academic phylogeny should not be solely based on our relationship to physical anthropology. As anthropological primatologists, we have the capability and responsibility of distinguishing ourselves as a nexus of biological and social sciences. 

The likely reason for the persistent questioning of the presence of primatologists within anthropology stems from its historical association with sociobiology during the 1980s and 90s. A lightning rod for post-modern criticism, sociobiology was utilized by primate and human behavioral ecologists to stress a more reductionist view of behavior; the ultimate explanation for behavior was for individuals to reproduce and outcompete their conspecifics. While early descriptions of primate behavior illuminated the evolutionary connections to humanity, a flux of field studies incorporated biological models to explain the variations between species (inter-specific) and theorized how ecological and social factors influenced the evolution of species. As primatological data became more systematic and theory became more complex, its relationship with socio-cultural anthropology became more disparate. The influence of quantitative methodology and application to non-human and human behavioral ecology widened what Peter Rodman (1999) has called the “epistemological abyss” within anthropology departments. These biological models created a rift between sociobiological models of human and non-human behavioral ecology and cultural interpretations of humanity. In the 1980s and 1990s, many American anthropology departments split between cultural and biological sub-disciplines, as socio-cultural anthropologists rejected scientific analysis of humanity as ethnocentric and reductionist. 

Anthropology is founded on a holistic comparative approach, especially cross-cultural variation. This comparative approach allows us to understand our relationship to natural history and the evolutionary foundations of humanity. A comparative approach in primatology can move beyond a reductionist view of species behavior by identifying variations of behavior between populations within a species. While acknowledging the inherent degree of phylogenetic inertia, research has highlighted the great degree and causation of behavioral and ecological flexibility, features so crucial to the evolution of our human ancestors (Strier 2003). This approach negates the view that behavioral variation is simply “noise” and acknowledges it as a foundation of the primate pattern. Behavioral plasticity, especially social and cognitive complexity, is one of the connective threads in which anthropologists view primates. Holistic views of anthropology can incorporate these patterns by stressing primate behavioral and ecological flexibility and its relationship to human cognitive and social capabilities.

One topic of interest is the role of social intelligence, individual decision-making, and behavioral strategies when group membership varies in different populations of the same species. Within primate populations, patterns of group membership vary in space and time, subtly influencing the patterns of social decision-making and resource use. The view of the social organization of a primate group has shifted from a strict group structure to a collective assembly of individuals guided by proximate and ultimate goals. Social dynamics are fluid between generations, and social associations also likely change based on past interactions, kinship relationships, and individual preference. Changes in group size and membership, whether influenced by ecological factors or stochastic chance, provide the opportunity for researchers to model how patterns of individual affiliation, competition, and reproduction. Teasing out how individuals respond to such variation in ecology and demography also acknowledges the importance of cognitive flexibility, social coordination, and cooperation. Patterns of primate cognition highlight these capabilities and should be seen as paramount in understanding patterns of intra-specific behavioral variation. Evaluating patterns of theory of mind, problem solving, ecological knowledge, and even social “fairness” have pushed the borders of what it means to be human. While the majority of these studies highly ape cognition, social learning in capuchins (Perry 2006) and social knowledge in baboons (Cheney and Seyfarth 2007) highlight the impressive evolution of cognition and flexibility within anthropoids.
As anthropology stresses the significance of cultural adaptation and social flexibility, the discipline should embrace the phylogenetic context of human behavior. Primate flexibility and social complexity represents a significant ancestral state of hominin evolution. Primatologist Linda Fedigan (2000) stresses the “four Cs” that unite all anthropologists: complexity, comparison, cross-discipline, and conservation. Highlighting the comparative evolutionary patterns of primate behavior, we stand to gain an enlightened sense of appreciation for the human condition. We may become stronger as a discipline for engaging each other in such comparisons. There are certainly tremendous differences between humans and our non-human primate ancestors, but placing greater significance on primate complexity and evolutionary relevance promotes the comparative drive that has historically stimulated anthropological thought.

Nicolas Ellwanger


Cheney D and Seyfarth R. 2007. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Fedigan L. 2000. A View on the Science: Physical Anthropology at the Millennium. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 113:451-454.

Perry S. 2006. What Cultural Primatology Can Tell Anthropology about the evolution of Culture. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 171-190.

Rodman P. 1999. Whither Primatology? The Place of Primates in Contemporary Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 28:311-339.

Strier K. 2003. Primate Behavioral Ecology: From Ethnography to Ethology and Back. American Anthropologist 105:16-27.

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