Week 2: Interdisciplinary Primatology


Primatology includes studies of biology, psychology and anthropology. I would also argue that primatology also crosses over into ecology, sociology, and environmental studies. Primatologists, in order to gain a critical understanding of their research subjects must integrate knowledge and theories from all of these various disciplines. I think it is necessary for anthropologists who wish to study primatology be prepared to delve into different aspects involving behavior and biology.

I believe that psychology can have certain benefits, particularly with social psychology. Part of our class discussion on January 21 (Tues) involved anthropomorphic tendencies, and applying psychology of the human upon primates would certainly be anthropocentric. There are certain elements of social psychology that are relevant in primate populations, however, such as the need to be nurtured at a young age, conformity and obedience within a structural power hierarchy, etc…

Studying from a purely biological standpoint can be very different. There are certainly behavioral characteristics in humans and primates alike that can be attributed highly to biology. The need to reproduce, meet subsistence needs, and find and keep shelter cannot be ignored, and biologists who study primates would likely look at such indicators to determine their effects on behavior in general.

If I were to become a primatologist, I think my primary focus would be from a sociocultural perspective. One of my favorite discussions in my anthropology classes was whether or not chimpanzees had “culture.” I enjoy watching different primates interact with each other and being able to compare / contrast those behaviors and interactions with those of my own. I think that we should consider different primates communities as societies of their own. I think that anthropologists should apply to primate studies the same tactics that they use in cross-cultural ethnographies (for example, trying to gain an emic or insiders perspective). I am also particularly interested in preservation tactics to help the robustness of primate populations. I think if I were an primatologist I would also like to focus on the ecological perspective to try and promote primate cultures to surrounding areas to help sustainability of certain species.

For example, the Aye-Aye is one of the most endangered lemurs in Madagascar because of slash and burn agriculture and hunting by the local communities. The Aye-Aye has an extremely long and thin middle finger that is functional in nature – used for extracting termites from logs. Many local people believe that if the Aye-Aye points its middle finger toward them, it is a curse. Therefore the lemur is killed at high rates. This example is useful in getting a picture of how biology, ecology, sociology, psychology (and even maybe religion?) can come into play in a certain situation! 

The Aye-Aye’s middle finger:

As a student who has taken many interesting anthropology courses, I have found that the best way to figure out who we are is to compare modern human beings – our biology, society, cultures, behaviors – to where we have come from. One of my favorite courses at Wake Forest was Human Evolution because it allowed me to look at aspects of myself and make connections to past species that I am related to; such as Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus species. I think primatology is similar, except that those we are comparing ourselves to are living, moving creatures. Studying primate behavior, especially that of our closest relatives like the chimpanzee and the bonobo is an excellent way to compare our own behavior to that others.

It is important for me to be reminded that we are not alone in the world, and we can gain significant knowledge about how we came to use tools, walk upright, and communicate with one another by using the behaviors of those around us. (Although a common misconception is that our relatives are somehow more primitive than us, when in fact they are just as modern as we are! I always found it important to remember when thinking about the course of human evolution)

Photo: Duke Lemur Center, http://dukelemurcenter.zenfolio.com/

This website has great pictures of all sorts of lemurs that live at Duke!


3 thoughts on “Week 2: Interdisciplinary Primatology

  1. I didn’t know the story about the Aye-Aye and its religious connotations within the local community. That’s a really strong example of how wide-ranging primatology can be. I also agree that it is important for us to recognize that we are not alone in the world. The egocentric tendencies of the human race makes people forget about where we came from, not to mention how it can be detrimental to primate habitats.

  2. I think your decision to focus on a sociocultural and ecological perspective is really interesting. Culture is clearly a very significant part of primate studies, because identifying non-human primate culture and comparing it with our own can lead to major insight about different species and the way they function and interact. Ecology is an area I had not thought of myself, but is definitely extremely important in primatology. I have done a large amount of personal research on the palm oil industry and the way it is affecting primates, so it makes sense that as a primatologist this would be a major focus and considering it would be practically a necessity.

  3. charlottegable

    The myth of the aye-aye in Madagascar is really interesting. I think that figuring out how cultures relate to primates is essential in terms of conservation. Your idea of doing primatology from a sociocultural perspective is also very cool. Comparing primate and human versions of culture would definitely reveal a lot about ourselves now as well as the past. Also I like your last paragraph; being reminded that other primates are just as modern as humans, and live in the same modern world is always a good thing.

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