The greatest scientific quest is finding our place in Nature. This leading primatologist has collected a series of essays on primate behaviour in an outstanding effort aimed at answering that question. De Waal's credentials as a student of chimpanzee behaviour are well-known. He's joined here by researchers of equal status in presenting the most recent findings in the field. De Waal states in the Introduction that research in human behaviour falls into two camps - human beings are an entirely unique species or human evolutionary roots are visible in many of our related species. He and his fellow essayists adhere to the second theme, the one that has gained significant adherence over the past several decades of research. "The proliferation of research on monkeys and apes . . . has influenced the way we look at our place in nature."
This collection brings to view much of that research, a compendium long overdue in de Waal's estimation. His team provides new insights into primate behaviour. They combine the research finding with speculations on how modern monkeys and apes reflect the evolutionary roots of our own relations with each other. The topics covered show the impact of environment, the patterns of sex and reproduction, social organization and cognition. The collection addresses the "process of hominization" leading from ape-like ancestors to modern humans. If all this sounds like a series of lofty scientific pedantry, fear not. All the authors present their information in open, conversational style. Although the result of a scholarly seminar, the writing throughout is clear and unpretentious. Anyone interested in their evolutionary roots or in the status of the research will find this collection rewarding.
The quality of this compilation makes choice of place difficult, if not impossible. Each author presents new information and delightful analyses of the importance of the findings. Craig Stanford discusses the role of meat eating [not hunting] in building social relationships. Studied closely in the field in both ape and human societies, meat distribution and sex have a clear evolutionary role. Richard Wrangham carries this theme a step further in his analysis of the social role of food preparation - cooking. He stresses how early cooking must have emerged in hominid evolution and what its likely social impact was in our development. Richard Byrne extends this analysis to describe several forms of food acquisition and processing among various primate species.
If any issue transcends the others in the role of humanity, it is that of human cognition. To those contending only human cognitive abilities are worth studying, several authors respond that "evolution does not proceed by inspired jumps . . . but by accretion of beneficial variants" over time. In order to comprehend the evolutionary path of cognition, definitions are of primary importance. Cognition is here defined as "a species' package of information-processing capabilities" encompassing individual, social, technical and other skills. Robin Dunbar shows how these skills were likely reinforced through selectively chosen group size. He examines variations in primate group size and how these impact social behavior. Charles Snowdon addresses the mainstay of human "uniqueness" in an outline of language
development. In the final essay, William McGrew considers the question of "culture." What is it and how was it derived? McGrew refers to eight criteria, developed many years ago by Alfred Koeber, and applies them in a historical context. McGrew emphasizes that humans are not the only social species. Language enhanced abilities inherited from our predecessors.
This book addresses older ideas and breaks new ground. With a strong foundation in the intensive primate studies achieved during the past three decades, the collection calls for further studies in the field. What these will bring to light will increase our knowledge of where we fit in Nature. There are assuredly many surprises remaining to be revealed. Will you help search for answers to some of these questions?