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Primatology is the study of primates: Placental mammals of the order Primates best known as apes. Humans are also considered primates but are usually not studied as part of primatology. The discipline is fragmented insofar as primatologists may be found working within a number of different fields and disciplines (e.g., anthropology and zoology) and with a variety of methodologies. It is controversial, since extrapolating lessons about human behavior and communities from other primates is often considered problematic, and because much of the history of primatology has been marked by theories heavily influenced by their social and political contexts.
Primates include two main families, which are the Prosimians and the Anthropoids. The Prosimians include the tarsiers, lorises, and lemurs and are jointly commonly referred to as the lower primates. The Anthropoids are the higher primates and include humans, monkeys, and apes, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. The intensely complex forms of behavior and social systems established by the higher primates make them fascinating creatures for study, and they help in understanding many of the bases of human society. Primatology studies the anthropology, biology, psychology, and evolutionary history of primates. Commonality between primate and human forms of behavior has been revealed by this method. The higher primates, in particular, demonstrate forms of behavior such as adultery, diplomacy, apology, and deception that had previously been considered to be uniquely human and to have moral implications.
Studies of chimpanzees have shown the degree to which language is used by primates; this has helped indicate the ways in which thinking has developed within animals. The structure of chimpanzee societies, for example, depends upon the number of animals involved within the group. Chimpanzees can recognize other members of the group and will have social relations with them. However, should the group-the “monkeysphere”-become too big, it takes too long and too much effort to identify and contextualize all the other members and the society becomes inefficient. In such a case, the group will divide into two smaller groups that represent more efficient societies.
Additional research has focused on the ways in which chimpanzees and human babies learn and develop, and this has indicated considerable levels of similarity in these processes. However, the controversial nature of some findings has inspired criticism of primatology. Some previous examples of research may no longer be considered valid because of the atypical conditions in which the primates were kept and treated.
It is possible to distinguish between Western and Japanese schools of primatology. The former tends toward an objective, quantitative, and scientific approach to the subject, while the latter, as represented most notably by Kinji Imanishi, has more of a subjective and interpretive approach. Japanese primatologists approach their subjects as creatures with whom to establish a relationship that is a form of partnership and that leads to greater levels of mutual understanding. The Western primatologist is more likely to attempt to maintain independence from the creatures and to try to describe and analyze it in isolation from the human relationship.
- Geoffrey Bourne, The Gentle Giants: The Gorilla Story (Putnam, 1975);
- Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (Routledge, 1989);
- Kinji Imanishi, A Japanese View of Nature: The World of Living Things (RoutledgeCurzon, 2002);
- William Kimbel and Lawrence B. Martin, eds., Species, Species Concepts, and Primate Evolution (Springer, 2002);
- Callum F. Ross and Richard F. Kay, , Anthropoid Origins: New Visions (Springer, 2004).