Through the Looking-Glass: Primatology in a Multicultural and Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Enrico Nardelli • BSc Anthropology

A howler monkey (Alouatta palliata palliata) such as the ones featured in the Popol Vuh (Wikimedia)

Looking into the primate mirror 

What do animists, Christian theologians, and evolutionary scientists have in common?  Surprising as it may sound, they have an interest in primates. And not a passing one, but one entailing cosmological stories, moral considerations, political agendas, and the fundamental ontological categories of their society. They all thought of primates to understand their world.

In one case, monkeys appear in the Popol Vuh, the sacred narrative of Quiché Maya, as an early divine creation attempt; seeing how monkeys would not worship them, the gods resolved to create humans. In another, Christian theologians chastised primates for being too similar to humans, an arrogant act that in their eyes echoed Satan’s pride in considering himself like God. In yet another, primates are researched by evolutionary scientists, aiming to shed light on our origins and behavioural profile. They captivated the curiosity of every society aware of their existence, which observed and told stories about them.

The reason why is self-evident: with their familiar faces, five digits, complex societies, and imitative abilities, it is indisputable that they resemble us more than any other animal. Indeed, observing primates is often parsed as a ”looking into the mirror.” This metaphor has some analytical value, as mirrors return our reflection. However, what we see in them may also be biased by what we already assume about ourselves, a phenomenon well-known to anthropologists: everybody carries assumptions from their personal and cultural background.  

The peculiar human-primate relationship should give us reason for thought. Firstly, the very similarities encouraging us to study them may be an obstacle to research endeavours. As noted by Descola, “where the observer and the observed share common properties, description is never simple” (2005:68). Second, being our closest relatives, scientists place themselves in their taxonomic group, the order Primates, which effectively makes primatology the study of primates by primates. This reflexive characteristic of primatology cuts across the categories of researcher and researched and destabilises the scientific ideal of a detached observer. 

Unsurprisingly, human politics and self-perception entwine with primatology. In 1912, an amateur palaeontologist unearthed fossils with apelike characteristics but a relatively large brain in Piltdown, Sussex. The specimen did not fit well into the timeline suggested by other findings and contradicted analyses indicating human ancestors were African. 

An illustration of the Piltdown man (Wikimedia)

Why were then so many scientists ready to accept the controversial fossils as authentic? Firstly, it insinuated Africa did not have exclusive rights over human evolution. A multi-regional theory of human origins tallied with the racist agenda of some intellectuals of the time. Furthermore, as the (self-proclaimed) smartest species, humans may be predisposed to assume the driving factor in evolution is brain enlargement. 

Looking for their evolutionary origins, humans projected their biased self-perception onto primates and saw a distorted version of the fossil record. The fossils were in fact forgeries but the hoax was only exposed in 1953 and continued to allure scientists for four decades. Ironically, our true ancestor, Australopithecus, is a mirror image of Piltdown man, sporting an apelike brain and a relatively modern locomotor apparatus—and is indeed African.

Just a decade after, fieldwork pioneer Jane Goodall conducted her first study of chimpanzees. It was the 1960s and the threat of nuclear war loomed large while pacifists protested in the streets. The picture transpiring from her monograph was that chimpanzees lived in harmony with nature and one another. It is fair to ask, as Marks does (2002), how much of this romantic picture was a product of the times. Indeed, not much later, further research revealed that rival groups frequently carried out lethal raids against each other.

Even within-group relationships did not seem that harmonious anymore. As de Waal (2002) described the cunning strategies of the apes to seize political power, Machiavellian intelligence—the ability to manipulate others—became the new buzzword. Again, we could wonder to what extent ‘selfish’ 1980s-society, characterised by economic exploitation and subsequent crisis, reflected on primatology. 

A selfie that recently went viral on account of the gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) standing ‘like humans’ (Virunga National Park Instagram)

Through the looking-glass

If primates have proven to be a thorny subject for scientists, the other half of the human-primate dichotomy is not less exempt from tough questions, starting with what makes us different from other primates and the very definition of “human.”

For early naturalists, the matter was straightforward: primates are animals, humans are not. Since Darwin showed that speciation occurs through gradual inheritable changes, deciding where the animal end and the human start became more challenging. Considering human only those born from human parents simply moves the problem back one generation, observes Weiss (2012), until we are back enough fossilised generations to wonder whether a specimen’s parents still qualify as human. 

And indeed, there is disagreement among specialists as to which fossils should be consider the first human, if Homo habilis, fashioner of tools, Homo erectus, upright but simple-minded, anatomically modern Homo sapiens, or, with increasing selectivity, only those sapiens displaying complex symbolic behaviour. 

Cave art, such as this from Chauvet Cave, is seen as a marker of the behavioural complexity (Wikimedia)

The use of the word should is telling here. Being a human artefact, taxonomy is bound to be arbitrary, notwithstanding how much we strive for making it descriptive and meaningful. For several biologists (Calcagno & Fuentes, 2012), this indicates that  concepts like “human” and “animal” are actually folk-taxonomy, stemming from subjective and cultural assumptions rather than natural facts. 

Human-animal dualisms are also evident in the study of culture. Some scientists believe that other primates can at best emulate, that is, try to achieve the same result of a behaviour seen in others, whereas humans can imitate, faithful step-by-step replication, and teach, which implies deliberate intent.

If the formulation of these categories may be informative in itself, in reality it is more likely that cultural skills evolved gradually. For instance, in experiments chimpanzees have been observed imitating and, in natural settings, even teaching others. Moreover, while teaching is the preferred mode of learning in education institutions—were scientists learn—this is not the case for large sections of humanity, such as hunting-gathering societies or in daily life, where emulation and imitation are more common. If teaching is not the preferred way of learning of humans, its relevance as discriminating factor between primates is questionable.

According to philosopher of science Daniel Dennet (2017), the source of the western dualist outlook traces back to the “Cartesian wound” that separated humans from animals and mind from body. Descartes, influential 16th century philosopher and scientist, postulated that human minds were capable of such incredible feats that no physical mechanism could explain their workings nor could they be made of animal substance. 

This dualist paradigm produces a set of correlated dichotomies, body/animal/nature from one side and mind/human/culture from the other. Anthropologist Viveiros de Castro (1998), however, notes how this pattern is not found in animist societies. Animism holds that all living beings possess the same spiritual nature, which enables them to experience the world in a socio-cultural way. For instance, from the perspective of animals, their food and livelihood appear like human food and houses appear to us and animal society is structurally identically to ours—constituted by kin, friends, lovers, etc. 

The element animists employ to distinguish between species is their exterior form, called “cloak” by Malay Chewong (Howell, 1991) and “cloth” by Amazonians (Viveiros de Castro, 1998), among others. Contrarily to what is assumed in western discourse, the difference between humans and animals is not based on the presumed unicity of human cognition and culture, but on the evident observation that all species differ in their bodies. 

That many animals learn in a non-genetic, social way is common knowledge today.  Even from within anthropology, however, whether animal behavioural patterns should be compared to ours is controversial, with some rejecting species-inclusive definitions of culture—e.g. “socially transmitted behaviour” (Sommer & Parish, 2010)—in favour of one based on ‘ideational’ content such as shared representations (Keesing & Strathern, 1998), which animals are thought to lack.  The latter stance is reminiscent of Cartesian dualism, separating animals from humans on account of mental phenomena. 

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) using tools (Marcel Langthim via Sci News)

Yet, intriguing evidence encourages us to cross this ulterior boundary. Whiten’s study (2011) on chimpanzee behavioural variability reports that Central African chimpanzees employ brush-sticks to “fish” ants from under bark and termites from mounds, whereas Eastern populations us probe-sticks for the same preys. This could indicate the populations share different conceptions of how “fishing”, whether of ants or termites, is done. Specifically, members of each culture could think: “ants and termites are both prey I catch by fishing, and fishing is done in this way”. This allows for the possibility that chimpanzees possess indeed cultural ideas that are shared at group-level. 

These considerations speak to the old scientific debate “anthropomorphism vs zoomorphism”—humanising vs animalising—which completely misses the point that there are no such things as scientific definitions of “human” and “animal”. As Dennet (2017) reminds, science is supposed to have a monist ontology, the idea that all phenomena, including humankind, mind, and culture, belong to the same universe and evolutionary continuum. In fact, nobody has ever explained how mind and body could interact if they were separated substances or when exactly the animal evolved into a human.

The lingering of these dualisms in scientific and anthropological debate can only be due to an anthropocentric and ethnocentric bias. As animist ontologies use the devices of ‘cloth’ or ‘cloak’ to explain the diversity of beings, the scientific and anthropological postulates of ‘mind’ and ‘culture’ may have the same function. In either case, they express culturally-specific constructs rather than referring to a cross-cultural reality. 

Science, however, does not aim to be culturally-specific but seeks universality. Similarly, multiculturalism is one of the central tenets of anthropology. Evidently, the dichotomies animality-humanity, body-mind, and nature-culture need to be collapsed to attain a perspective that is both coherent and multicultural. 

The consequences of this perspective shift directly involve primatology, being the study of the species closest to us and in-between our ideas of “animal” and “human”. Back to the idea of “primatology as a looking into the mirror”, clearly this metaphor just partly captures the relational phenomenon instantiated by humans observing primates. In fact, this conception still posits a dichotomy between the researcher and the researched, in spite of the fact that humans themselves are primates. The shift in perspective suggests we now have to regard ourselves as gone “through the looking-glass”, to borrow the title of Lewis Carrol’s novel.    

A chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) named Toto with a human (Homo sapiens) named Cherry (Wikimedia)

A new perspective: Anthrozoology

Now we are in the paradoxical situation of recognising that human-primate primatologists study primates with humanlike cognitive and cultural abilities. And primates are just the first node of the tree of life that connects humans with all living beings. Indeed various researchers have called for a new paradigm for studying species, anthrozoology, a word containing both “animal” and “human”, thus stressing their continuity.

Anthrozoology studies the relationships between living beings adopting both biological and social anthropology approaches as well as quantitative and qualitative research methods. Evidently, this will lead to a re-analysis of concepts such as human, animal, mind, body, culture, nature. This shift in perspective may also have political consequences, for example expanding the legal definition of person to other primates, as suggested by philosophers Cavalieri & Singer (1993), and encouraging societies to be more ecologically-minded. The anthrozoological perspective is species-inclusive, multicultural, and interdisciplinary, a true middle ground for anthropological research.


Calcagno, J. M., Fuentes, A. (2012) What Makes Us Human? Answers from Evolutionary Anthropology. Evolutionary Anthropology 21:182–194

Cavalieri, P. & Singer, S. (1993) The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St. Martin’s Press: New York;  

Dennet, D. (2017) From Bacteria to Bach and Back: the Evolution of Consciousness. W. W. Norton & Company: New York; 

Descola, P. (2005). On anthropological knowledge. Social Anthropology, 13(1): 65–73;

de Waal, F. (1982). Chimpanzee Politics. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore; 

Goodall, J. (1993). Chimpanzees: Bridging the Gap. In: Cavalieri, P. & Singer, S. (eds). The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St. Martin’s Press: New York;

Howell, S. (1991). Nature in Culture or Culture in Nature. Chewong ideas of ‘humans’ and other species.’ In: Descola, P. & Gisli P. (eds). Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives. Routledge: London; 

Keesing, R. M. & Strathern, A. (1998) Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary  Perspective. Holt, Rinehart & Wilson: New York;

Marks, J. (2002). What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee. University of California Press: Berkeley;

Sommer, V. & Parish, A. (2010) Living Differences, the Paradigm of Animal Cultures. In: Frey, U. J. Homo Novus: A Human without Illusions. Springer-Verlag: Berlin & Heidleberg;  

Viveiros De Castro, E. (1998) Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4(3): 469-488;

Whiten, A. (2011). The scope of culture in chimpanzees, humans and ancestral apes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 366: 997-1007;

Weiss, K. (2012). To Be or Not To Be (Human), Is that a Question? Evolutionary Anthropology, 21: 192;

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