Monkeytalk: Inside the Worlds and Minds of Primates

Monkeytalk: Inside the Worlds and Minds of Primates


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Monkey see, monkey do—or does she? Can the behavior of non-human primates—their sociality, their intelligence, their communication—really be chalked up to simple mimicry? Emphatically, absolutely: no. And as famed primatologist Julia Fischer reveals, the human bias inherent in this oft-uttered adage is our loss, for it is only through the study of our primate brethren that we may begin to understand ourselves.

An eye-opening blend of storytelling, memoir, and science, Monkeytalk takes us into the field and the world’s primate labs to investigate the intricacies of primate social mores through the lens of communication. After first detailing the social interactions of key species from her fieldwork—from baby-wielding male Barbary macaques, who use infants as social accessories in a variety of interactions, to aggression among the chacma baboons of southern Africa and male-male tolerance among the Guinea baboons of Senegal—Fischer explores the role of social living in the rise of primate intelligence and communication, ultimately asking what the ways in which other primates communicate can teach us about the evolution of human language.

Funny and fascinating, Fischer’s tale roams from a dinner in the field shared with lionesses to insights gleaned from Rico, a border collie with an astonishing vocabulary, but its message is clear: it is humans who are the evolutionary mimics. The primate heritage visible in our species is far more striking than the reverse, and it is the monkeys who deserve to be seen. “The social life of macaques and baboons is a magnificent opera,” Fischer writes. “Permit me now to raise the curtain on it.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226124247
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/06/2017
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Julia Fischer is professor in the German Primate Center and head of the Department of Cognitive Ethology at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany, as well as president of the European Federation of Primatology. Frederick B. Henry Jr. holds an MA in anthropology from the University of Chicago and is an independent scholar and translator of German who has worked with several university presses.

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Inside the Worlds and Minds Of Primates

By Julia Fischer, Frederick B. Henry Jr.

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-12438-4



The stars of our show are Barbary macaques, chacma baboons, and Guinea baboons. Before I provide a more detailed description of these species, a few notes on the varied appearances and habits of primates in general are called for. The Primate order is marked by an extraordinary diversity of physical form, lifestyle, and social organization. The spectrum runs from the solitary aye-aye, a nocturnal lemur of Madagascar that taps for insects under tree bark with its long and slender middle finger, to South American squirrel monkeys living in large colonies, to harems of gorillas, whose adult males can reach a size of four hundred pounds.

Primates originated roughly eighty million years ago. The nearest living relatives of ancestral primates are the Philippine flying lemur and the Southeast Asian tree shrew, both of which give a sense of what life might have been like for the earliest primate species. Today the Primate order comprises two main lines. First, there are the Strepsirhini, including the galagos (bush babies), pottos, lorises, and Madagascar lemurs. A well-known example is the ring-tailed lemur with its distinctive black-and-white ringed tail. The second group is the Haplorhini, which includes tarsiers, small nocturnal primates of Southeast Asian rain forests, and true simians. The true simians appeared fifty to thirty-six million years ago and comprise New World and Old World monkeys. The latter group includes tailed Old World monkeys, small apes such as gibbons, and the great apes — that is, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans.

Among tailed Old World monkeys are the baboons, which I describe in greater detail below, and macaques such as the rhesus monkey, Barbary macaque, and Japanese macaque. Japanese macaques are especially famous for, and frequently photographed enjoying, their snow-encrusted hot spring baths. The guenons belong to this taxonomic group as well. One species in this group, the vervet monkey, has played a particularly important role in research on the communication of primates, and I will return to them in the third part of the book. In addition, the tailed Old World monkeys include colobine monkeys, prominent examples of which are the Asian Hanuman langurs and the black-and-white colobus monkeys of Africa with their showy and magnificent coats.


I have studied Barbary macaques for many years, but I hadn't originally planned to do so. I had intended to become a marine biologist. After finishing my studies at the Free University of Berlin and the University of Glasgow, I was ready to begin doctoral work at the Sea Mammal Research Unit of Cambridge University. My final requirement was a course in behavioral biology. This took me to Rocamadour in southwestern France to investigate the social behavior of Barbary macaques at Le Forêt des Singes. Kurt Hammerschmidt, Henrike Hultsch, and Dietmar Todt, who later became my doctoral advisor, directed this fieldwork. The monkeys here, cavorting energetically around the park, gave me far greater inspiration than seals sprawling and loafing on a sea coast. Kurt is my best friend, and we continue to collaborate today as we did back then to shed light on the evolution of communication.

La Forêt des Singes — like the Trentham Monkey Forest in Staffordshire, England, or Monkey Mountain near Lake Constance in Germany — is mainly a tourist attraction. Visitors can stroll along established paths in the reserve and view the monkeys up close. But these parks are also well suited for scientific research and education. At Rocamadour, roughly 150 animals roam freely in three groups over an area of twenty hectares. They are given food and receive annual medical examinations, and live under no threat from predators — it is truly a monkey paradise. As Kurt observed: "The monkeys would happily visit their native wilderness, but they would be on the airplane the instant it headed back home." Hormonal contraception keeps the monkeys' birth rate in check. Despite these benefits for the monkeys, studies of captive animals are limited in the sort of questions they can reasonably pose. For example: Which male has the greatest mating success? Or: How much time must the animals spend in their daily quest for food? These are questions for which animals in captivity can provide no meaningful answers. On the other hand, because they are accustomed to humans and readily participate in non-intrusive experiments, such captive animals are ideal for studies of communication and intelligence.

Barbary macaques are the only macaques found in Africa, specifically in the forests and mountains of the middle and high Atlas, the mountainous Rif region of Morocco, and Kabylia in Algeria. There is a small population in Gibraltar as well. All other macaques are indigenous to Asia. Through evolution in harsh climates, the Barbary macaque has lost its tail, and for some time this led them to be classified with apes. In fact, the tail hasn't completely disappeared, as a small stub still remains. Over the cold winter months, they insulate themselves with a thick coat of fur. Autumn is mating season, and after a six-month gestation period, newborns arrive in the spring. Births usually happen in the evening or at night, when the danger of predators is minimal. In contrast to the brownish-yellow color of the adults, newborns have a pitch-black coat and pink faces and hands. A distinctive newborn coat is a common feature of many monkey species. Baboon infants are also black, except for those of the little-studied Kinda baboon, which are born with white fur.

The baby monkey spends the first week of its life clinging to its mother's belly. It grasps its mother's fur tightly with its hands and feet. If it lacks strength to hang on, the mother supports the baby with her free hand. After a few weeks, the baby is shifted to its mother's back. Among the tailless Barbary macaques, infants take a jockey position on the shoulders of the adult. Baboon babies, once a little bit older, can sit comfortably upright on the mother's back, leaning against her raised tail. But in Barbary macaques, mothers are not the only ones who care for and transport the young. More than in any other macaque species, male Barbary macaques express great interest in the little ones. Males frequently take the baby from its mother soon after birth and tote it around. Scientists initially believed this was an expression of paternal affection and concern for offspring, but genetic investigations disproved this idea. A second interpretation was that males sought popularity with mothers so as to have greater reproductive success in the next breeding season, but this argument was likewise found unsustainable. A third possibility remained, that infants were a kind of status symbol for males, and, indeed, newborns do in fact play a major role in male social relationships. If a male is carrying an infant, he can more confidently approach another male and engage in mutual grooming than if he approaches alone. When two male Barbary macaques sit together holding an infant, they often engage in a peculiar ritual, lifting the baby up high, nuzzling it, and thoroughly inspecting it. They chatter their teeth, smack their lips, and emit deep grunting sounds. Sometimes they will bask in the afterglow, calmly remaining beside each other, while at other times one of the males will brusquely snatch the infant up and rush off to repeat the ritual with another male. The more time a male spends with an infant, the greater his chances for such "triadic interactions." Yet this attention, this curious babysitting, is an expensive investment. As we discovered, the longer and more often males took responsibility for infants, the higher the levels of their stress hormones. Still, males who make a greater investment in infant care are rewarded with a prime position in the male social network, and those who build strong social bonds with male partners in the spring received continuing future support from these partners. Furthermore, evidence is growing that males with many strong social bonds have a greater reproductive success and thus transmit more genes into the next round of evolution.

"Success" in evolution is defined as the number of gene copies transmitted to the next generation. As a consequence, an organism is not restricted to investing in the production of its own offspring, but may also aid in the reproduction and survival of its kin. The more closelyindividuals are related — in other words, the more genetic material they share — the more valuable it is to support each other's offspring. The totality of all transmitted gene copies is what is called "inclusive fitness." Interestingly, even in the field of biology, a number of scientists were initially hard-pressed to accept this insight and the revolutionary ideas stemming from it, which gave impetus to the new field of sociobiology. The problem many had with this new field was that its key principles seemed to suggest social Darwinism, a brutal "survival of the fittest." What might make for success, though, is not always readily predictable. In dynamic and uncertain conditions, there may be advantages to being small, agile, and defensive. With the refinement of sociobiological theory and the death of several of its most influential protagonists and fiercest critics, such as Stephen Jay Gould, the heated ideological debate over sociobiology has for the most part subsided and become a subject for the history of science. And even those who accept the insights of sociobiology may freely choose not to follow its dictates. "My genes can jump into the lake," the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker once remarked about his childlessness.

Like many primates, Barbary macaques are captivated by newborns. When I first observed a big group of monkeys fascinated by an infant, it occurred to me that a group of people cooing over a baby stroller was equally exhibiting primordial primate behavior. The enormous interest that group members take in a newborn isn't entirely without risk, however. A baby might be safely paraded around the neighborhood by a male, but it might just as easily be kidnapped by a senior or higher-ranking female and never returned to its mother.

Older, more experienced female Barbary macaques give birth early in the breeding season. These females know how to get their babies back from the males. Younger females have a more difficult time with this. At the birth of their first baby, they often have no idea how to cope. I once observed a young mother — in human terms a case of "teenage pregnancy" — carrying her infant around clumsily. She even sat down on top of it. Eventually she mastered how to properly carry her baby but at times still left it unattended. When the baby began to scream, she would hurry over and play with it. Fortunately, the infant was robust, and after several days the mother had gotten the hang of things. Such cases clearly show how learned experience is crucial for infant care. As I explain later, monkeys have an exceptional capacity for learning in numerous situations. But more importantly, the monkeys are not only capable of learning — they need to learn.

Young Barbary macaques fortunate enough to survive the risky newborn phase with a competent mother spend the first months of their lives either with her or in the care of a male. Males commonly develop an interest in a particular infant. The infant thus has a primary male caregiver and perhaps one or two auxiliary ones. The primary male brings the infant to its mother when it is thirsty or hungry. However, sometimes a male will sit for long periods holding an infant tightly by its ankle, totally unswayed by its cries (see fig. 5).

Over the summer, the baby's fur gradually takes on adult coloration. A golden streak graces the eyebrows. The pink face first pales and then bit by bit takes on adult coloring. The hands and feet grow darker and become almost as black as the tiny fingernails and toenails. The motor skills of the young monkeys rapidly improve. We sometimes describe three- to four-week-old monkeys as "frogs" because of how awkwardly they hop about, but within a few months they develop a normal gait. During this period, the most significant social partners besides the mother are other juveniles. The whole world is a playground: it is climbed on, balanced upon, and actively explored.

As in humans, mothering assumes different styles, varying with individual experience, personality, and sex of the infant. Some monkey mothers are overly protective, never letting their young ones have the freedom to explore the world as they want. Others, by contrast, are relaxed and let the infant choose whether to keep close to home or venture farther afield to play with others. In the first year of life, mother and child undergo a role reversal. Early on, the mother follows her infant solicitously, but as she prepares herself for another pregnancy by weaning, the infant suddenly finds itself chasing after its mother. It can no longer freely approach to nurse. Barbary macaque mothers wean their daughters earlier than their sons. This has been linked to the fact that males have little contact with their mothers after weaning, so a mother may keep a son around for a while longer, whereas daughters remain the most significant social partners of their mothers throughout life. During the weaning period, dramatic scenes may take place. I have seen a mother shielding her breast with her arm to prevent an infant from nursing, while the infant, throwing a tantrum, protested loudly with bristling fur and flashing teeth. Some young seem even to blackmail their mothers: they throw themselves from trees, somersault, and roll in the dirt. At first the mother may relent and permit the infant to nurse again. I once watched a mother offer her breast to an infant after a long tantrum, and then quickly withdraw it — apparently the infant had bitten her. In retaliation, the mother gave the baby a powerful bite on the leg. Among monkeys there is definitely a form of strict discipline.

The eminent evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers published a seminal work on this topic in the 1970s, in which he elucidates the "parent-offspring conflict." He argues that it is initially in the interest of the parent, in this case the mother, to invest maximally in its offspring to ensure their survival. In this first phase, the interest of the offspring is aligned with that of its parent. This state breaks down the moment the mother becomes ready for new offspring. She must gradually withdraw her investment, so to speak, in her existing offspring and reallocate the assets into a fund for future offspring. Hence, for example, she stops nursing and sets in motion the physical preparations for a new pregnancy. A similar logic underlies so-called sibling rivalry. On the one hand, an infant naturally seeks for itself the lion's share of maternal care and affection; on the other, by evolutionary imperative, the number of gene copies reproduced must be maximized. Therefore, a member of a sibling group is at the same time selfish and supportive of its siblings with whom it shares, depending on their paternal kinship, either half or a quarter of its genes. Human parents with more than one child are of course intimately familiar with this conflict.

Young females reach sexual maturity between three and a half to four and a half years. At this age they seem still a bit unsure what to make of the new situation they find themselves in. They have studiously avoided males, yet are now propelled toward them by surging hormones. A true tumult of ambivalent emotion is on display: they approach males apprehensively, grinning and chattering, only to run away screeching at a male's slightest movement. Ultimately, they find courage and flaunt their hind parts to the males, though it is difficult for a young female to maintain her balance when a male, almost twice her size, mounts her. Experienced females, by contrast, are able to turn around during copulation to look the male in the face and grasp his coat, a technique that hastens ejaculation, as does the staccato call emitted by females during copulation.

Young male Barbary macaques normally leave their birth group at four to five years of age, an especially precarious time for them. They first move to the periphery of their own group, assuming a sentry role of sorts, because there they are often the first to spy potential threats and alert the group with alarm calls. Then they begin moving toward a new, unfamiliar group. As yet immature, they are gangly, adolescent, and rowdy. They stand little chance against the full-grown adult males, who boast greater muscle mass, larger canines, and substantially thicker coats. Entering new groups often entails attack and injury, but this tenacity pays off if the young male is able to secure future mating opportunities with unrelated females.


Excerpted from Monkeytalk by Julia Fischer, Frederick B. Henry Jr.. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Prologue xi

Part 1 Social Behavior 1

Primate Diversity 3

Barbary Macaques: Model Monkeys 4

Primate Social Systems 14

Social Organization 15

Mating Systems 17

Social Relationships 20

Chacma Baboons: Into the Wild 30

Baboon Camp 33

Long-Term Studies 37

Aggression 41

Guinea Baboons: Uncharted Territories 46

An Expedition to Senegal 47

Simenti 49

First Findings 52

The Evolution of Baboons 56

Challenges of the Third Kind 59

Part 2 Cognition 65

What Do Animals Think? 67

Trophy Hunters and Killjoys 68

The Social Brain 71

Physical Cognition 75

The Basics 75

Quantities 80

Space 84

Time 90

Social Intelligence 95

Do Animals Have Culture? 95

Forms of Social Learning 100

Gaze Following 105

Social Knowledge 108

Theory of Mind 117

Intentions 117

Seeing and Knowing 119

Belief 123

Metacognition 126

The Evolution of Intelligence 130

Part 3 Communication 133

What Is Communication? 135

Senders and Receivers 135

Information 136

Signals and Cues 138

The Function of Monkey Sounds 139

Communication in Conflicts 140

Mating Calls 143

Group Coordination 144

The Evolution of Language: Beginnings 148

Early Theories 148

A Pioneer 150

Elements of Linguistic Competence 152

Ape Language Projects 153

Language Training for Apes 153

Symbolic Languages 155

Natural Communication in Primates 160

Alarm Calls 161

Vocal Behavior 164

Dialects 166

Development of Reactions 175

Perception of Gradual Differences 176

Word Learning in a Domestic Dog 181

The Evolution of Language: State of the Art 188

Syntactic Abilities 188

Is There a Gene for Language? 192

Gestural Communication 193

Intentional Communication 197

Just for the Fun of It 202

The Evolution of Communication 204

Conclusion and Prospects 207

Acknowledgments 211

Notes 215

References 221

Index 239

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