Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 17:21 EDT


Primatology is the study of primates that focuses on their behaviors and possible evolution. Those who practice this science, known as primatologists, focus on primates in the wild and in laboratory settings. There are many different sub-divisions of primatology that differ based on methodology and theory, but the two major branches are Western primatology and Japanese primatology. There share basic principles, but differ culturally and in many other regards.

Western primatology originated from Europe and North America, where scientists mainly focused on medical research. However, some primatologist attempted to “civilize” chimpanzees to evaluate their level of intelligence and limitations. Western primatology mainly focuses on the psychological and biological aspects of primates, seeking to understand if there is a connection between primates and humans.

Primatologists use three methods to study primates, known as field study, semi-free range study, and laboratory study. Field study, which is considered the most realistic method, focuses on primates in their natural habitats, while laboratory study focuses on controlled experiments to gather information about primate behavior. Semi-free range studies focus on the behaviors of primates in man-made habitats that mimic natural habitats. Areas like these, including the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia, allow primatologists to study primates in an easily accessible controlled yet natural environment.

Japanese primatology originated from animal ecology and began with Junichiro Itani and Kinji Imanishi. Imanishi is an animal ecologist that helped create the Primate Research Group in 1950, while Junichiro was a well-known anthropologist who helped create the Primate Research Institute. Japanese primatology focuses on the evolution of social and individual behaviors in order to understand the relationship between social self and individual self. The traditional cultural ideas of relating to animals, known as the older sibling mentality, have influenced the methods of primatology to respectful, yet firm. Kawai Masao introduced a method known as kyokan, which suggests that in order to attain reliable information about an animal, one must live with the animal and have a close relationship with it. Kawai is the only primatologist that can be associated with the kyokan method, but its principles are used throughout Japanese primatology. For this principal to work, domestication is thought to be important, as well as knowing each animal by sight and name. This method, which is unique to Japanese primatology, helps to create a detailed database of information that can be used to study individual and group behaviors.

In sociobiology, primatology is used to compare the behaviors of primates to those of humans. These two sciences seek to understand topics like the evolution of communication and the development of cultures, as well as the process through which scientific discoveries are made. When Carolus Linnaeus revolutionized taxonomy, he classified humans with primates based on their similar appearances. Because of the similarities between primate grooming and human communication, primatologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that the grooming habits of monkeys and other primates could have led to human communication under the theory of evolution.

Primatology has shown that, like humans, primates can learn language, although the vocabulary that primates can learn is limited. Chimps have even displayed behaviors like deception and apologizing. Some primatologists attribute the complex behavior patterns of primates to theory of mind, although others debate this theory.

Primatology has experienced many criticisms, including political and social arguments. Some of these arguments stem from objections to the basis of sociobiology and primatology when practiced together, while other arguments stem from the differences between Western and Japanese primatology. Some have asserted that primatologists and sociobiologists bring preconceptions into their work and seek answers that only support their views, including Zuckerman’s 1932 study of hamadryas baboons, which concluded that the strong male dominance of members of this species and extreme submissiveness of females was similar to that of humans. This study has been criticized because primates differ in troop structure and behavior.

Image Caption: Papio anubis (olive or anubis baboon). Credit: Stolz, Gary M./Wikipedia