247 pages, 34 b/w photos, 2 b/w illustrations
Monkey see, monkey do – or does he? Can the behavior of non-human primates – their sociality, their intelligence, their communication – really be chalked up to simple mimicry? Emphatically, absolutely: no. And as famed primatologist Julia Fischer reveals, the human bias inherent in this oft-uttered adage is our loss, for it is only through the study of our primate brethren that we may begin to understand ourselves.
An eye-opening blend of storytelling, memoir, and science, Monkeytalk takes us into the field and the world's primate labs to investigate the intricacies of primate social mores through the lens of communication. After first detailing the social interactions of key species from her fieldwork – from baby-wielding male Barbary macaques, who use infants as social accessories in a variety of interactions, to aggression among the chacma baboons of southern Africa and male-male tolerance among the Guinea baboons of Senegal – Fischer explores the role of social living in the rise of primate intelligence and communication, ultimately asking what the ways in which other primates communicate can teach us about the evolution of human language.
Funny and fascinating, Fischer's tale roams from a dinner in the field shared with lionesses to insights gleaned from Rico, a border collie with an astonishing vocabulary, but its message is clear: it is humans who are the evolutionary mimics. The primate heritage visible in our species is far more striking than the reverse, and it is the monkeys who deserve to be seen. "The social life of macaques and baboons is a magnificent opera", Fischer writes. "Allow me now to raise the curtain on it."
"In Monkeytalk, Fischer offers a lively, personal, and nuanced perspective on primate behavior. She neither embellishes nor diminishes primate intelligence, but evaluates it objectively. And she does so in the most appropriate way – in the natural environment in which it evolved."
– Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, coauthors of How Monkeys See the World and Baboon Metaphysics
"This eminently readable book explains from a position of erudite affinity with the animal world just why an anthropomorphic view of it is equally misleading as a purely naturalist depiction of human culture. Refreshing, both for us humans and for the monkeys."
– Süddeutsche Zeitung, on the German edition
"An excellent and entertaining book about how we may begin to uncover the capacities of our closest relatives."
– Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, on the German edition
"How Monkeys See the World is [...] the title of a classic work in primate research that was written in 1990 by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth. Later on, Fischer herself worked for this team of researchers, and in Botswana she worked on, among other things, detailed 'playback' experiments in which [...] the alarm call of a relative was played to monkeys using a (hidden) speaker so that their reactions could be observed. In her book Monkeytalk, Fischer now offers a beautiful overview of the state of such research projects."
– Die Zeit, on the German edition
"Fischer is profoundly knowledgeable about communication among monkeys [...] She has the best information on what observational and experimental work her worthy colleagues are performing, and she is also well versed in the history of behavioral research [...] The media are constantly reporting similar things: Amazing, monkeys can speak! Or: We're like them after all, and they're just like us – only not as clever! [...] The wonderful thing about Fischer's book is that she does not follow this path. She writes that comparing a human child to a grown monkey is problematic. She focuses not on the comparison 'What can monkeys do, and what can humans do?' but rather the respect that we should show the fellow creatures in our world [...] It is made clear that monkeys are intelligent, but in their own way and in a manner suited for their own purposes."
– Laborjournal, on the German edition
"Along with her results, Fischer's book offers numerous anecdotes taken from the everyday life of a researcher and is thus both informative and enjoyable reading."
– Das Leibniz-Journal, on the German edition
"One discovers again and again in this book the close affinity between monkeys and humans. This book needed to be written!"
– Cuxhavener Allgemeine, on the German edition
"Accessible and [...] entertaining [...] Fischer's book [...] is very much to be treasured."
– Die Tagezeitung, on the German edition
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Julia Fischer is professor in the German Primate Center and head of the Department of Cognitive Ethology at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany, as well as president of the European Federation of Primatology.
Frederick B. Henry, Jr. holds an MA in anthropology from the University of Chicago and is an independent scholar and translator of German who has worked with several university presses.