Meet with Prof. Richard Byrne, primatologist

Marta Alech & Artur Martínez-Sarró, Máster en Primatologia Universitat de Girona · Fundació Mona, 2014-16

ByrneR-220Professor Byrne studies the evolution of cognitive and social behaviour, particularly the origins of distinctively human characteristics. Current projects focus on the gestural communication of the great apes, and on the social cognition of the African elephant. Previous work has included tactical deception in primates and its relationship to brain size and intelligence, welfare-related studies of cognition in the domestic pig, and the analysis of social learning and imitation. ” (See for papers.) Postgraduates under his supervision have recently worked on gestural communication in chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans; elephant social cognition; great ape manual feeding techniques, including the effect of disability on chimpanzee behaviour; and cognitive maps and travel coordination in monkeys and apes. Professor Byrne was awarded the British Psychology Society Book Award 1997 for his O.U.P. monograph “The Thinking Ape”.

How did you start working in the primatology world?

By luck. My PhD, on the use of human memory in planning, had made me realize that psychology should pay much more attention to everyday behaviour—and record it systematically—long before the stage of designing killer experiments. (Things are much better nowadays in cognitive psychology.) Coming to St Andrews, I encountered the systematic study of animal behaviour—ethology—and discovered that good methods had already been devised and were used routinely. I was keen to have a try myself, and felt that primates would be a sensible starting poiint for someone without a biology degree. But it was sheer luck that I organized a student reading party at which Bill McGrew was guest: we got on well, and I eventually plucked up courage to ask if he ever let amateurs like me try studying animals at his field site. He very kindly gave me permission, and my first experience of primatology was in following baboons in Senegal, trying to work out how they coordinated travel with calls.



Lots of your studies are based in great apes, but you also have studied some other animals. Do you think is possible to compare the cognition behavior and the social learning in the different animals you have studied?

Not only possible, but essential. Until the same observations, the same experiments, and a level playing field for assessing evidence are applied to a wide range of species, it won’t be possible to trace the evolution of cognition in general, and we’ll forever be stuck with treating our closest relatives as a sort of model or failed human.



Did you start working with the great apes in order to understand better some of the human capacities?

Not explicitly, but I think I have always been drawn to the more complex and subtle aspects of cognition, so studying great apes makes some sense. The proximate reason was simply that I thought they looked like wonderful animals that I wanted to get to know better!

Do you think is it possible to talk about theory of mind in chimpanzees?

I don’t much like the term in any species, because it seems to prejudge the way in which we deal with the knowledge and inclinations of other individuals: theoretical, philosophical and thoughtful. I suspect that even in humans that is seldom how we show “theory of mind abilities”; I’d prefer the term mentalizing. With that proviso, the answer is a firm “yes” – but that doesn’t mean that I’d endow chimpanzees with human mental capacities, that would be silly. Mentalizing can be of different forms, about different entities, with different degrees of computational power.

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Primatology, ethology and other disciplines like neuroscience and psychology destroy lots of mites about the human nature. Nowadays we know that humans are animals and primates and we also know that we share lots of physical and mental features with the great apes. After years of your studies, could you tell us if there is something that make us exclusives?

The short, and very easy answer is: language. But I don’t think it is sensible to search for exclusively human traits, as if there was a mystical soul out there to find. The interest to me is to trace how we became so very different from our nearest relatives, without invoking magic (or single genetic macromutations that suddenly endowed us with all the bits we can’t explain otherwise!).

Do you consider yourself continuist or rupturist?

In evolution, continuity is the only way. Anything else is just superstition. That doesn’t mean that species deparated by millions of years of independent evolution are in any way “the same”, of course.

Following Darwin’s opinions (the study of primates will contribute more in metaphysics than John Locke’s works) do you think that the primatology is useful for the philosophy? And for other human disciplines?

The number of philosophers who are keen to discuss findings and interpretations with primatologists would suggest that the answer has to be yes. As a primatologist, I find discussion with philosophers very helpful for clarifying logic and terminology, so it is a productive two-way process.

Have you studied tactical deception exclusively in primates or also in other animals? In case that you only have studied it in primates, do you think that other animals have also this ability?

I haven’t exactly studied tactical deception even in primates: I just noticed some instances while studing feeding skills, and helped put together similarly anecdotal records from many other primatologists to reveal a larger picture. It is known that a range of other animals show tactical deception, including cases where the mechanism is genetical (e.g. stomatopods); the evidence that the mechanism is insight into others’ false beliefs is weak in any non-human species, though fairly convincing in great apes.


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Which is the most difficulty you have ever found studying so huge animals like African elephants?

In fact, the practical difficulties were less than I’d have imagined, once it became obvious that they could not be pushed around (!) so the same methods that developmental psychologists use to study babies were appropriate: expectancy violation, habituation-dishabituation etc. The long-running Amboseli elephant project, in particular the encyclopaedic knowledge of individual elephants possessed by the skilled local field assistants, made other aspects quite easy. It is essential to understand that elephants aren’t like primates in many ways, though. For instance, they are cooperative not competitive within their social groups – no chance of tactical deception, but they show abundant evidence of sophisticated levels of empathy and mutual understanding.

In your work, which discoveries have been the most impressive you have ever found?

I think that is for others to decide, not me.

Finally, what would you like to work on in the future? What is your challenge o which mystery would you like to find out?

Personally, I’d like to continue working on African elephants, because I think there are so many fascinating things yet to be discovered about them. Having spent much of my career working with our closest relatives, the great apes, there is a special excitement working with a species SO distantly related to us, with no common ancestor for at least 105 million years.




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