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Course module: B-MPCEMD
Primate social behaviour
Course info
Course codeB-MPCEMD
ECTS Credits2.5
Category / LevelM (Master)
Course typeCourse
Language of instructionEnglish
Offered byFaculty of Science; Graduate School of Life Sciences; Graduate School of Life Sciences;
Contact persondr. A.M. Schel
Contactperson for the course
dr. A.M. Schel
Other courses by this lecturer
prof. dr. E.H.M. Sterck
Feedback and availability
Other courses by this lecturer
Teaching period
W21A  (24/05/2019 to 14/06/2019)
Teaching period in which the course begins
Time slot-: Not in use
Study mode
RemarkDate course: May - June 2019.Send an e-mail to the course coordinator for enrollment
Course application processadministratie onderwijsinstituut
Enrolling through OSIRISNo
Enrolment open to students taking subsidiary coursesYes
Waiting listNo
Course placement processdocent
After completing the module the student is able to:
  • Understand current Insights in the topics concerning primate social behaviour and skills
  • Compare and integrate primary literature
  • Formulate questions and discuss the topic
Lecture 1: Morality A Darwinian View of the Moral Emotions in Man and Animals Homo homini lupus – “man is wolf to man” - is an old Roman proverb popularized by Thomas Hobbes. Even though it permeates large parts of law, economics, and political science, the proverb fails to do justice to our species’ thoroughly social nature as well as to canids, which are among the most gregarious and cooperative animals. For the past quarter century, this cynical view has also been promoted by an influential school of biology, followers of Thomas Henry Huxley, which holds that we are born nasty & selfish. Accordingly, it is only with the greatest possible effort that we can hope to become moral beings. Charles Darwin, however, saw things differently: he believed in continuity between animals social instincts and human morality. He wrote an entire book about The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Modern psychology and neuroscience support Darwin’s view about the moral emotions. Human moral decisions often stem from “gut” reactions, some of which we share with other animals. I will elaborate on the connection between morality and primate behavior. Other primates show signs of empathy (see Lecture 2), reciprocity, and a sense of fairness that promote a mutually satisfactory modus vivendi. I will review evidence for continuity to support the view that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity.

Lecture 2: Empathy On the Possibility of Animal Empathy The possibility that animals have empathy and sympathy has received little systematic attention due to an excessive fear of anthropomorphism and the Behaviorist taboo on animal emotions. Actual animal behavior, however, would lead one to agree with Charles Darwin that "Many animals certainly sympathize with each other's distress or danger." In my own work with monkeys and apes, I have found many cases of one individual coming to another's rescue in a fight, putting an arm around a previous victim of attack, or other emotional responses to the distress of others. In fact, the entire communication system of nonhuman primates seems emotionally mediated. In this presentation I will review expressions of empathy in animals, especially nonhuman primates, and present a "Russian doll" model of how animals perceive others. It ranges from a core mechanism of emotional linkage arising from a direct mapping of another's behavioral state onto the subject's representations. This Perception-Action Model provides the basis for higher levels in which there is an increasing distinction between self and other, so that the other is recognized as the source of felt emotions. This permits responses to be geared specifically to the other's situation, thus increasing the effectiveness of sympathetic support, care, and reassurance, as observed in dolphins, apes, and elephants. The connection between perspective-taking and mirror self-recognition (MSR) will be elaborated upon, including our recent demonstration that Asian elephants recognize themselves in a mirror.

Lecture 3: Culture
A Social, Political & Cultural Brain: What Primates Know About and Learn From Each Other Primates live in complex societies in which they compete, try to become dominant, but also help friends and kin. At Living Links we test the knowledge of monkeys and apes about each other, including the power relations among primates, described first in my book Chimpanzee Politics (1982).

Several recent experiments will be discussed, such as a) the role of policing by high-ranking “peacekeepers” and how their behavior stabilizes society, b) how primates distinguish gender - do they have a gender "construct" in that they find it easier to determine the gender of familiar individuals, c) how do chimpanzees and bonobos complement "regular" primate communication (facial expressions and vocalizations) with hand gestures and does this bear on language evolution, d) what do primates learn from each other - do they have cultural capacities in that they adopt behavior shown by others in their group? It is known from the wild that many animals, especially our closest relatives, show cultural variation. That is, their behavior differs from group to group based on the transmission of knowledge, skills, or habits. We now speak of the up and coming field of "cultural primatology."

Examination Multiple choice exam

Further information
The master classes are given by Prof. dr. Frans de Waal, university professor of the Utrecht University. The master classes consist of three lectures with subsequent discussion, each with their own topic:
1. Morality, 2. Empathy, and 3. Culture in nonhuman primates.

Students will read primary literature to prepare each classes and its discussion. The classes will be examined with a multiple choice exam. At the end of the course, students should have a profound understanding of: a. Current Insights in the topics concerning primate social behaviour and skills. At the end of the course, students should be able to: a. Compare and integrate primary literature b. Formulate questions and discuss the topics
Since Prof. dr. Frans de Waal is a Distinguished Professor, the master classes will be open for students from all master programs of Utrecht University. The number of students that can participate from a certain master program or a cluster of master programs will be restricted. Students will be admitted in the order of registration. The maximum number of students will depend on the size of the class venue, but may be around 200.
Entry requirements
You must have completed the bachelor exam and you must have a valid study entrance permit
Prerequisite knowledge
Bachelor of science in the same field.
Required materials
Instructional formats

Final result
Test weight100
Minimum grade-

Kies de Nederlandse taal