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What’s so social about primate sociability?

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Primatologists have often claimed that primates have a distinctive form of sociality; most other ethologists have been skeptical. Yet primates manifestly have much bigger brains than anyone else, and they dont use them for foraging (occasional vague claims to this effect notwithstanding). I shall use new analyses of the demography and social behaviour of primates to argue that the central problem for primates (and all mammals) has been the need to mitigate an unavoidable consequence of the way mammalian reproductive endocrinology is organised: female fertility is a negative function of the stresses created when many females live together. Primates that have not found a solution are confined to living in small groups; those that needed to live in large groups to cope with increased predation risk evolved grooming-based coalitionary alliances as a form of mutual protection, but these required a significant increase in brain size to manage complexly structured relationships. I shall argue that this simple principle explains the pattern of group sizes in primates, as well as why species like gelada and hamadryas baboons have highly structured social systems built around harems.

This talk is part of the Biological Anthropology Seminar Series series.

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