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Primatology is the study of non-human primates. It is a diverse discipline and primatologists can be found in departments of biology, anthropology, psychology and many others. It is closely related to physical anthropology, which is the primatology of the genus Homo, especially Homo sapiens. The fields cross over in the study of the hominids, which includes all ape-like ancestors of man and the other great apes (for a list of common ancestors with other living species see The Ancestor's Tale).

Modern primatology is an extremely diverse science. It ranges from anatomical studies of primate ancestors and field studies of primates in their natural habitat, to experiments in animal psychology and ape language. It has cast an immense amount of light on basic human behaviors and ancient ancestry of these behaviors.


Primatology as a science has many different disciplines that stem from the differing cultural backgrounds of the founders of the field. Indeed, the study itself seems to change throughout different areas of the world, as different approaches, theories and methods are used in the researching of primates and their relationships and links with humans.

There are two main disciplines within the field of primatology, Western primatology and Japanese primatology. These two divergent disciplines stem from their unique cultural backgrounds and philosophies that went into their founding. Though, fundamentally, both Western and Japanese primatology share many of the same principles, the areas of their focus in primate research and their methods of obtaining data differ widely.

Western Primatology[]


Western primatology stems primarily from colonial research into primate behaviour, especially by French colonial scientists. Early primate study focused primarily in medical research, but some scientists also conducted “civilizing” experiments on chimpanzees in order to gauge both primate intelligence and the limits of their brainpower.


The Western study of primatology looks at the more biological and psychological aspects of their subjects. Their focus is on studying the common links between humans and primates, past our shield of ‘society’ and into the nature we share with our ancestors. We will better understand our primitive selves, by understanding our closest animal relatives. Obviously, there have been some cultural and religious issues with the field of primatology, especially as it pertains to the Theory of Evolution.

The discipline of Western primatology is affected by the Judeo-Christian background of European and American science. As such, researchers tend to have a “steward” mentality towards their subjects, much like that of a park ranger or a guardian. Subjects should be unharmed by study, and protected both from and by the research that is done.


Western primatology is a very hard objective science. The general belief is that human interaction with nature must be either extremely limited, or completely controlled. Either way, the observers must be totally neutral to their subjects. This allows for data to be unbiased and for the subjects to be uninfluenced by human interference.

This focus relies on two major areas of study; field study – which is the more limited approach – and laboratory study – the more controlled approach.

Field study is done in fully natural environments, in which scientific observers literally watch primates exist in their natural habitat.

Laboratory study is done in totally controlled lab settings. In this area of study, scientists are able to perform controlled experimentation on the learning capabilities and behavioural patterns of the animals.

Both types of primate study in the Western methodology are meant to be very neutral. Though there are certain Western primatologists who do more subjective research, the emphasis in this discipline is on the objective.

Western primatology tends to focus on individual researchers and their exploits. Stories of researchers such as Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall are extreme examples of this. Long term sites of research tend to be best associated with their founders, and this leads to some tension between younger primatologists and the veterans in the field.

Notable Western Primatologists[]

Japanese Primatology[]


The discipline of Japanese primatology was developed out of animal ecology. It is mainly credited to Kinji Imanishi and Junichiro Itani. Imanishi was an animal ecologist who began studying wild horses before focusing more on primate ecology. He helped found the Primate Research Group in 1950. Junichiro was a renowned anthropologist and a professor at Kyoto University. He is a co-founder of the Primate Research Institute and the Centre for African Area Studies.

Unlike Western Primatology, the Japanese discipline is a male dominated science.


The Japanese discipline of primatology tends to be more interested in the social aspects of primates. Social evolution and anthropology are of primary interest to them. The Japanese theory believes that studying primates will give us insight into the duality of human nature: individual self vs. social self.

The traditional and cultural aspects of Japanese science lend themselves to an “older sibling” mentality. It is believed that animals should be treated with respect, but also a firm authority. This is not to say that the Japanese study of primatology is cruel – far from it – just that it doesn’t feel that their subjects should be given reverential treatment.

One particular Japanese primatologist, Kawai Masao, introduced the concept of kyokan. This was the theory that the only way to attain reliable scientific knowledge was to attain a mutual relation, personal attachment and shared life with the animal subjects. Though Kawai is the only Japanese primatologist associated with the use of this term, the underlying principle is part of the foundation of Japanese primate research.


Japanese primatology is a carefully disciplined subjective science. It is believed that the best data comes through identification with your subject. Neutrality is eschewed in favour of a more casual atmosphere, where researcher and subject can mingle more freely. Domestication of nature is not only desirable, but necessary for study.

Japanese primatologists are renowned for their ability to recognise animals by sight, and indeed most primates in a research group are usually named and numbered. Comprehensive data on every single subject in a group is uniquely Japanese trait of primate research. Each member of the primate community has a part to play, and the Japanese researchers are interested in this complex interaction.

For Japanese researchers in primatology, the findings of the team are emphasised over the individual. The study of primates is a group effort, and the group will get the credit for it. It is also not unusual to see a team of researchers observing the same group of primates for several years in order to get very detailed demographic and social histories.

Notable Japanese Primatologists[]

  • Imanishi, Kinji
  • Junichiro, Itani
  • Masao, Kawai

Primatology in Sociobiology[]

Where sociobiology attempts to understand the actions of all animal species within the context of advantageous and disadvantageous behaviors, primatology takes an exclusive look at the family Primates, which includes Homo sapiens. The interface between primatology and sociobiology examines in detail the evolution of primate behavioral processes, and what studying our closest living primate relatives can tell about our own minds. The meeting point of these two disciplines has become a nexus of discussion on key issues concerning the evolution of sociality, the development and purpose of language and deceit, and the development and propagation of culture. Additionally, this interface is of particular interest to the science watchers in science and technology studies, who examine the social conditions which incite, mould, and eventually react to scientific discoveries and knowledge. The STS approach to primatology and sociobiology stretches beyond studying the apes, into the realm of observing the people studying the apes.

Taxonomic Basis[]

Before molecular biology, the father of modern taxonomy, Carolus Linnaeus, organized natural objects into kinds. He sorted these kinds by morphology, the shape of the object. As it happens, animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans resemble humans very closely, so Linnaeus placed Homo sapiens together with all the other similar-looking organisms into the taxonomic order Primates. Modern techniques in molecular biology have reinforced humanity’s place within the Primate order. Humans and simians share the vast majority of their DNA, with chimpanzees sharing between 97-99% genetic identity with humans.

From Grooming to Speaking[]

Although grooming is observed in many animal species, the grooming activities undertaken by primates are not strictly for the elimination of parasites. In primates, grooming is a social activity that strengthens relationships. The amount of grooming taking place between members of a troop is a potent indicator of alliance formation or troop solidarity. Robin Dunbar suggests a link between primate grooming and the development of human language. The size of the neocortex in a primate’s brain correlates directly to the number of individuals it can keep track of socially, be it a troop of chimps or a tribe of humans.

This number is referred to as the monkeysphere. If a population exceeds the size outlined by its cognitive limitations, the group undergoes a schism. Set into an evolutionary context, the Dunbar number shows a drive for the development of a method of bonding that is less labor intensive than grooming: language. As the monkeysphere grows, the amount of time that would need to be spent grooming troopmates soon becomes unmanageable. Furthermore, it is only possible to bond with one troopmate at a time while grooming. The evolution of vocal communication solves both the time constraint and the one-on-one problem, but at a price.

Language allows for bonding with multiple people at the same time at a distance, but the bonding produced by language is less intense. This view of language evolution covers the general biological trends needed for language development, but it takes another hypothesis to uncover the evolution of the cognitive processes necessary for language.

Modularity of the Primate Mind[]

Noam Chomsky’s concept of innate language addresses the existence of universal grammar, which suggests a special kind of “device” all humans are born with whose sole purpose is language. Fodor’s modular mind hypothesis expands on this concept, suggesting the existence of preprogrammed modules for dealing with many, or all aspects of cognition. Although these modules do not need to be physically distinct, they must be functionally distinct.

The massive modularity theory thesis posits that there are a huge number of tremendously interlinked but specialized modules running programs called Darwinian algorithms, or DA. DA can be selected for just as a gene can, eventually improving cognition. The contrary theory, of generalist mind, suggests that the brain is just a big computer that runs one program, the mind. If the mind is a general computer, for instance, the ability to use reasoning should be identical regardless of the context. This is not what is observed. When faced with abstract numbers and letters with no “real world” significance, respondents of the Wason card test generally do very poorly. However, when exposed to a test with an identical rule set but socially relevant content, respondents score markedly higher. The difference is especially pronounced when the content is about reward and payment. This test strongly suggests that human logic is based on a module originally developed in a social environment to root out cheaters, and that either the module is at a huge disadvantage where abstract thinking is involved, or that other less effective modules are used when faced with abstract logic.

Further evidence supporting the modular mind has steadily emerged with some startling revelations concerning primates. A very recent study indicated that human babies and grown monkeys approach and process numbers in a similar fashion, suggesting an evolved set of DA for mathematics (Jordan). The conceptualization of both human infants and primate adults is cross-sensory, meaning that they can add 15 red dots to 20 beeps and approximate the answer to be 35 grey squares. As more evidence of basic cognitive modules are uncovered, they will undoubtedly form a more solid foundation upon which the more complex behaviors can be understood.

Primate Theory of Mind[]

Primate behavior, like human behavior, is highly social and ripe with the intrigue of kingmaking, powerplays, deception, cuckoldry, and apology. In order to understand the staggeringly complex nature of primate interactions, we look to theory of mind. Theory of mind asks whether or not an individual recognizes and can keep track of information asymmetry amongst individuals in the group, and whether or not they can attribute folk psychological states to their peers. If some primates can tell what others know and want and act accordingly, they can gain advantage and status.

Recently, chimpanzee theory of mind has been advanced by Felix Warneken of the Max Planck Institute. His studies have shown that chimpanzees can recognize whether a researcher desires a dropped object, and act accordingly by picking it up. Even more compelling is the observation that chimps will only act if the object is dropped in an accidental-looking manner: if the researcher drops the object in a way that appears intentional, the chimp will ignore the object.

In a related experiment, groups of chimps were given rope-pulling problems they could not solve individually. Warneken’s subjects rapidly figured out which individual in the group was the best rope puller and assigned it the bulk of the task. This research is highly indicative of the ability of chimps to detect the folk psychological state of “desire”, as well as the ability to recognize that other individuals are better at certain tasks than they are.


Scientific studies concerning primate and human behavior have been subject to the same set of political and social complications, or biases, as every other scientific discipline. The borderline and multidisciplinary nature of primatology and sociobiology make them ripe fields of study because they are amalgams of objective and subjective sciences. Current scientific practice, especially in the hard sciences, requires a total dissociation of personal experience from the finished scientific product (Bauchspies 8). This is a strategy that is incompatible with observational field studies, and weakens them in the eyes of hard science. As mentioned above, the Western school of primatology tries to minimize or control subjectivity to the greatest degree possible, while the Japanese school of primatology tends to embrace the closeness inherent in studying nature.

Social critics of science, some operating from within the field, cry foul when reviewing the young disciplines of primatology and sociobiology. Claims are made that researchers form opinions on issues concerning human sociality prior to doing their studies, and then seek evidence that agrees with their worldview or otherwise furthers a sociopolitical agenda. In particular, the use of primatological studies to assert gender roles, and promote or subvert feminism has been a serious point of contention.

An example of this is Zuckerman’s 1932 study of captive hamadryas baboons, as critiqued in Sturm and Fedigan's Changing Views on Primate Societies. Zuckerman observed male baboons kill each other off in great number in their captive environment. Whether intended or not, the study served to reinforce images of the male as the sole competitor in an often violent race to secure dominance and access to a harem of females. Despite wildly unrealistic overcrowding and completely incorrect male to female ratio, Zuckerman's paper was viewed as good science at the time. These ideas justified the status quo of human male dominance, and consequently, the studies were widely supported and assumed to be the basis of a primate-wide template for behavior, including that of humans. Incidentally, the hamadryas baboon females are among the most submissive and most gender-unequal of all primates, although primates and humans share a tremendous variation in troop structure (Hrdy 101, Stone).


Primate Visions – Donna Haraway
The Woman That Never Evolved
Kinship and Gender - Linda Stone
Science, Technology and Society - A Sociological Approach
Tree of Origin - Frans de Waal
Changing Primate Society: A Situated North American View. Sturm, Shirley C., Fedigan, Linda M.

See also[]

External links[]

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