Seyfarth, Robert M.
Seyfarth, Robert M.
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, psychology faculty member, 1985—, including as professor of psychology and chair of the department. Postdoctoral fellow, Rockefeller University, New York, NY.
(With wife, Dorothy L. Cheney)How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1990.
(With Dorothy L. Cheney)Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2007.
Contributor to professional journals, including Animal Behaviour, Animal Learning and Behavior, and the Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Robert M. Seyfarth is a psychologist and educator whose research focuses on the social behavior, vocal communication, and cognition of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat. He has conducted research on free-ranging baboons in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, vervet monkeys in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Much of his research is conducted with Dorothy L. Cheney, who is his wife and a biologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Seyfarth and Cheney have also authored two books:How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species and Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind.
The work of Cheney and Seyfarth on vervet monkeys led to their writing How Monkeys See the World. According to Danny Yee on the Danny Yee's Book Reviews Web site: " How Monkeys See the World tries to answer one of those questions that has always intrigued people—how much do animals understand about the world?" In their search for an answer to this question as it pertains to nonhuman primates, the authors address issues such as whether or not monkeys are self-conscious and have emotions. To collect enough data, the authors focused on eleven social groups of monkeys and monitored their demographic changes with a special interest in gathering data on what their vocalizations mean within their communities. In addition to their research with vervet monkeys, the authors also examine other nonhuman primate species, both in the wild and in captivity.
" How Monkeys See the World is an apt label for Seyfarth and Cheney's research concerns during this period," wrote Duane Quiatt in the American Journal of Psychology. "They were particularly interested in vervet monkeys' knowledge of their social world; they asked, for example, how individuals might evaluate other individuals with respect to group membership and behavioral reciprocity, and whether or not individual A could recognize relationships (of kinship, friendship, dominance rank, etc.) that obtained between individuals B and C, apart from her or his own relationship with either." Quiatt also wrote: "Cheney and Seyfarth are accomplished field primatologists with a keen understanding of how to apply behaviorist methods to the study of cognition."
The authors received numerous kudos from other critics for their sound scientific research and their well-rounded approach to answering the questions they set out to try and answer. For example, Alison Jolly wrote in Science: "Above all, they offer both a floor and a ceiling for the complexity of vervets' minds. Most books in this field give only half the argument: the counter-case to an imaginary opponent who is pictured as an uptight, oversimplifying behaviorist or else as a gushing anthropomorphizer. Seyfarth and Cheney show that monkeys are much more complex than we used to think, in their use of vocalizations and in their treatment of social companions. However, the monkeys have surprising gaps in their understanding of their environment, even of the behavior of their own predators." Edward MacNeal, a contributor to ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, commented: "Without ever becoming pedantically unreadable, the authors exercise great care in interpreting both the questions and the evidence."
In their next book,Baboon Metaphysics, Seyfarth and Cheney draw on their work in Botswana's Okavango Delta to not only clarify the workings of baboon society but also to try and establish how much awareness that baboons have of their own social situations and the greater world, that is, their surrounding habitat. As they explore which baboon activities are instinctive and which activities result from a sequential thought process, Cheney and Seyfarth outline the baboons' complex social hierarchy within their society, which is largely dependent on birth, sexual relationships, and friendships (especially between females and males who provide them with protection). In addition to presenting their scientific data, the authors also provide comparisons to human society, often turning to literary examples. For example, the authors compare the treatment of a baboon who raises the ire of a high-ranking baboon to a human character who suffers a similar fate in an Edith Wharton novel after angering someone in high society. As a result, the authors show how baboon society reflects human society in many ways, both good and bad. They note that baboons show love, tenderness, and the ability to sacrifice, but they also quarrel, commit murder, and can be greedy social climbers.
According to Nancy Bent in Booklist, Cheney and Seyfarth explore their subject in Baboon Metaphysics "in a style that both explains complex concepts and challenges the reader." The authors drew many other favorable reviews for their book about baboon society. "While describing important research about baboon cognition and social relations, this book charms as much as it informs," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. A Science a GoGo Web site contributor commented: " Baboon Metaphysics is a fascinating window on a world seemingly parallel to our own, while examining why science still considers the human brain unique."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Anthropologist, June, 1991, Barbara J. King, review of How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species, p. 482.
American Journal of Physical Anthropology, August, 1991, Sonia Ragir, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 465.
American Journal of Psychology, spring, 1995, Duane Quiatt, review of How Monkeys See the World.
American Scientist, January-February, 1988, David Altmann, "Primate Societies," p. 68; September-October, 1991, Duane M. Rumbaugh, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 453.
Animal Behaviour, December, 1991, Karen B. Strier, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 1039.
Booklist, April 15, 2007, Nancy Bent, review of Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, p. 11.
ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, spring, 1995, Edward MacNeal, review of How Monkeys See the World.
Library Journal, March 1, 1992, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 42.
Nature, April 18, 1991, W.C. McGrew, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 565; August 2, 2007, Asif A. Ghazanfar, "Social Climbers," review of Baboon Metaphysics, p. 535.
New Scientist, November 16, 1991, Robin Dunbar, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 48; May 19, 2007, Frans De Waal, "When a Grunt Speaks Volumes: Life May Be Harsh in a Baboon Troop but, as an Insightful Account Shows, What It Lacks in Empathy It Makes Up for in Social Complexity," review of Baboon Metaphysics, p. 54.
New York Review of Books, May 30, 1991, Lord Zuckerman, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 46.
Publishers Weekly, March 26, 2007, review of Baboon Metaphysics, p. 80.
Quarterly Review of Biology, June, 1991, Duane M. Rumbaugh, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 228.
Science, May 20, 1988, Jeanne Altmann, "Primate Societies," p. 1076; February 1, 1991, Alison Jolly, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 574.
Sciences, May-June, 1991, Richard W. Byrne, review of How Monkeys See the World, p. 42.
Scientific American, August, 2007, review of Baboon Metaphysics, p. 100.
Times Higher Education Supplement, August 17, 2007, Daniel Nettle, "Kinship That Means Monkey Business," review of Baboon Metaphysics, p. 22.
Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 1990, Phyllis C. Lee, review of How Monkeys See the World.
Danny Yee's Book Reviews,http://dannyreviews.com/ (November 6, 1992), Danny Yee, review of How Monkeys See the World.
Mark Baraniecki Books and Notes,http://www1.dragonet.es/users/markbcki/ (October 19, 2007), Mark Baraniecki, revivew of How Monkeys See the World.
Science a GoGo,http://www.scienceagogo.com/ (April 26, 2007), review of Baboon Metaphysics.
University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychology Web site,http://www.psych.upenn.edu/ (October 28, 2007), faculty profile of Robert M. Seyfarth.