From Grooming to Speaking


From Grooming to Speaking:
Recent trends in social primatology and human ethology


Johan Bolhuis
Constança Carvalho
Augusta Gaspar
Nathalie Gontier
Mary Lee Jensvold
Simone Pika
Tim Racine
Jeroen Stevens
Jordan Zlatev

CFCUL, 3-day International Colloquium, September 10-12, 2012, University of Lisbon

The field of ethology arose in the 1930s, in Europe, as an outgrowth of both naturalized epistemology and comparative zoology. Inspired by early scholars such as Oskar Heinroth and Julian Huxley - Konrad Lorenz took on the study of imprinting and fixed action patterns; and Niko Tinbergen defined what became known as the 4 questions of ethology. Both would greatly enhance studies on the evolutionary origins of primate and animal behavior.

At around the same time, modern comparative psychology would, especially in America, turn behaviorism into a school. With their focus on learning and conditioning, scholars such as Edward Thorndike, John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner introduced the empirical and experimental study of behavioral development.

Both comparative psychology as well as ethology would lay the foundations for primatology and sociobiology. They would introduce cross-fostering experiments where they taught nonhuman primates to speak, sign or learn artificial languages such as Yerkes; and they took on the study of human and nonhuman primate behavior under experimental and artificial conditions. By the 1960s, pioneers such Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall would found modern primatology, that as a field, would take on the study of primate behavior in the wild.

Sociobiologists would criticize the early ethologists and comparative psychologists' exclusive focus on visible behavior. The deciphering of the genetic code in the 1950s provided them with the hope that soon, the genetic basis of primate and animal behavior would be discovered. In order to understand nurture, we need to understand nature, and early sociobiologists synthesized selection theory with the data provided by fieldwork and the outcomes of behaviorist experiments, and developed the first theories on the evolution of human and non-human primate behavior and cognition. Scholars from the classic humanity fields, such as Piaget and Chomsky, would also criticize the tenets of behaviorism and induce what is now called, the cognitive revolution. Advances made in the cognitive and neurological sciences allowed for research into the development of cognition and language. An important outcome of the cognitive revolution was the rise of the field of biolinguistics, as well as research on Theory of Mind.

By the beginning of the 1990s however, also the cognitive turn became partly criticized and partly expanded, by the "social turn" and "adaptationist turn". Evolutionary psychologists such as Cosmides and Tooby, and Pinker and Bloom, criticized all former approaches and argued that human behavior primarily needs to be understood from within evolutionary theory. The study of human behavior or language needs to be understood by making use of natural selection theory, and by studying our hominin past, much more than by studying behavior or cognition as it unfolds in modern human and non-human primates. Rather than focus on the proximate causes of behavior, evolutionary psychologists tackle the ultimate causes of behavior: how did behavior and cognition evolve? What are the adaptive benefits? Evolutionary linguistics and evolutionary anthropology are direct outgrowths of evolutionary psychology, and both fields examine how especially natural selection theory can provide theories on the rise of human sociocultural behavior.

The above described paradigm shifts have often been characterized as transitions from instructionism to cognitivism to selectionism. But the fact of the matter is that today, scholars remain active in all these fields, and all continue to provide valuable insights into the origin, development and evolution of human and nonhuman cognition and behavior. With this conference, we aim to bring together scholars who are active within all these fields. We will provide a platform where experts are able to reflect and discuss the pros and cons of their approach, and how their experiments, methodologies and theories enable insight into the origin and evolution of communication and human language. The conference will therefore focus on theoretical and methodological issues, much more than that it will focus on the dissemination of new results.


Organized by the Centre for Philosophy of Science of the University of Lisbon

The conference will be held at the Auditorium of the FFCUL | Edifício C1 - Piso3, Faculty of Science of the University of Lisbon, Portugal.

Directions to the campus

Scientific committee

- Rod Bennison, CEO Minding Animals International

- Rudie Botha, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa and University of Leiden, the Netherlands

- Massimiliano L. Cappuccio, United Arab Emirates University, The United Arab Emirates

- Daniel Dor, Tel Aviv University, Israel

- Luc Faucher, UQAM, Candada

- Nathalie Gontier, Free University of Brussels, Belgium (chair)

- David Leavens, University of Sussex, UK

- Robert Lickliter, Florida International University, US

- Jorge M.L. Marques da Silva, University of Lisbon, Portugal

- Mark Nelissen, University of Antwerp, Belgium

- Eugenia Ramirez Goicoechea, UNED, Spain

- Emanuele Serrelli, University of Milan, Italy

- Chris Sinha, Lund University, Sweden

- James Steele, University College London, UK

- Ian Tattersall, American Museum of Natural History, NY

- Natalie Uomini, University of Liverpool, UK

- Arie Verhagen, University of Leiden, the Netherlands

- Luis Vicente, University of Lisbon, Portugal

Organizing committee

- Nathalie Gontier (chair), Dutch Free University of Brussels, Belgium

- Marco Pina, Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Lisbon, Portugal

- Olga Pombo, Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Lisbon, Portugal


Questions on the program:

Nathalie Gontier

Questions on practicalities (travel, registration, lodging):

Ricardo Santos

Questions on the website:

Márcia Belchior

Important Dates

Deadline abstract submission

June 30th, 2012

Notification of acceptance

July 15th, 2012

Registration Deadline

August 15th, 2012


September 10-12, 2012


Will be made available in August, 2012.

Abstracts of the plenary lectures are available here.

Social events

The conference dinner will be held on September 10th, 2012, at the Fábrica de Braço de Prata, Rua de Fábrica de material de Guerra, Lisbon.


Registration fees:

We kindly remind you to pay the conference dinner.

Register here.