Asking Big Questions for Primatology

Mandrill primate
Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) at the San Francisco Zoo ©the author
By Liz Renner
December 15, 2012

In a program dedicated to interdisciplinary (or, according to paleoanthropologist and recent invited speaker Curtis Marean , “transdisciplinary”) research, CASHP scientists and students have plentiful opportunities to review the results of current research in biological anthropology via classes or our weekly Journal Club.

This year, we also have the opportunity to help experts set the agenda for future research in primatology.  Inspired by recent similar efforts in fields like social science and conservation, the primatology community initiated a project to identify the Top 10 Big Questions in Primatology, which will lay out the most important questions in the field and guide research goals. Anyone can submit any number of questions, which are to be condensed by a committee; the questions will be published in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Primatology.

For CASHP’s contribution to this effort, a group of graduate students, postdocs, research assistants, and faculty sat down for a beverage at a favorite local dive and discussed the big questions that we would like to ask (or like to see other researchers ask). A wide variety of interests was represented: various participants have studied or plan to study primates’ brains, teeth, tool use in the wild, and mother-offspring relationships (to name just a few). These scientists are practiced at asking well-defined, answerable questions in  a research setting. As the discussion began, though, we quickly broadened our perspectives, thinking beyond our focused interests and posing questions that cut across many interests and may be unanswerable. (An unanswerable question, after all, may still be useful to pose.)

Patas monkey (Erythrocebus patas) at the San Francisco Zoo ©the author

In the end, the CASHP group submitted 36 questions that touched on various topics, including “Should non-human primates have ‘human’ rights?” (submitted by a faculty member), “How do we show governments, institutions, and the public that primates matter?” (from a research assistant), and “What is the significance of play in ontogeny?” (from a graduate student).

Dear reader, if you feel inspired by this collaborative crowd-sourced endeavor and would like to contribute one question or even a list of questions for this effort, you can email it to: I anticipate further interesting discussions once the final list comes out!