Uncovering the roots of human social organisation

Hi my name is Cyril Grueter, I am a Biological
Anthropologist and Primatologist. I am originally from Switzerland but now I
work here as an Assistant Professor at the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology
at UWA. This school has a very long history of doing
research on human evolutionary biology going back many decades. We are now standing here in front of some
skeletal material – these are all skulls of fossil hominids and we can learn a lot from
these fossils about the evolution of human morphology. For example we can make inferences about the
evolution of human brain size. One of the most fundamental and fascinating
questions in biology pertains to the evolution of human social organisation and social behaviour
and that’s what I am particularly interested in. But we have a problem, these fossils don’t
tell us much about behavioural evolution because behaviour doesn’t really fossilise. So the approach that I have chosen is to study
non-human primates in the wild so I use a comparative approach. I believe that we can learn a lot from these
non-human primates about the evolution of human social behaviour. I do a lot of field work, for example for
my PhD I spent about two years in the remote corner of China near the Himalayas doing research
on the black-and-white snub-nosed monkey, an endangered primate. I was actually the first westerner to work
in that particular area. This was a very challenging project, there
were a lot of logistical and bureaucratic obstacles that we had to overcome but in the
end it was a very rewarding experience. And after finishing my PhD I moved on to do
a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and I
had the privilege to spend almost two years in central Africa in Rwanda doing research
on the world famous mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes. I did my research at the Karisoke Research
Centre, that’s the research centre that was founded by legendary Dian Fossey forty-five
years ago, and this was really a childhood dream come true for me. Both species, the snub-nosed monkeys and the
gorillas, have something in common – they live in very rugged, high altitude environments
and I would say that being Swiss is probably an advantage when it comes to doing research
at very high altitudes! So now I have an ongoing collaboration with
the Chinese Academy of Sciences and this particular research project is about the social organisation
and social network of these primates. One of the questions we are interested in
is what are the cause and benefits of living in large groups for primates? We are also interested in finding out how
primates achieve conformism in their behaviour and how they maintain cohesion in these very
large groups. A question I’m particularly interested in
is the evolution of large-scale cooperative behaviour. One of the universals of humans is the ability
to overcome hostility between groups and to establish cooperative alliances with neighbouring
groups. I believe these snub-nosed monkeys are perfect
models to understand the evolution of intergroup tolerance because they live in a society where
small family groups tolerate each other’s neighbourhood and get together in larger bands. So basically the same pattern as we see in
human beings. I may have given you the impression that I
do all my research at very exotic locations, but actually I also have honours students
working here in Perth at the Perth Zoo doing research on primate and non-primate behaviour
and cognition and I also do comparative analysis. I extract data from the literature and from
databases and I use this data to investigate coevolution of behavioural traits. And I’m really looking forward to my next
trip to China to do additional field research on our closest relatives.

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