Animal Social Complexity:
Intelligence, Culture, and Individualized Societies

Frans B. M. de Waal + Peter L. Tyack (editors)

Harvard University Press 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
How are brain size and intelligence related to social complexity? What are the evolutionary underpinnings of cooperation? How sophisticated are animal communication and social cognition? And do animals have culture? These are some of the broad questions addressed by the eighteen papers in Animal Social Complexity, which look not only at primates and cetaceans, but also at hyenas, elephants, bats, and birds. The common focus is on societies that are individualized, with members recognising each other as individuals, and stable, with long-lived members and on-going relationships, and in which there are learned survival skills and social behaviours. Some of the papers are overviews of particular species or taxa, some address specific questions in the context of a particular species, and some present cross-species comparisons.

Consisting of the papers from a conference held in 2000, Animal Social Complexity is a professional volume, complete with a hundred pages of references. But the topics covered are of widespread interest, and the multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of the papers makes them mostly accessible to the lay reader.

Carel Van Schaik and Robert Deaner present a life history perspective on cognitive evolution: demonstrating a link between social complexity and intelligence/brain size is complicated because both are correlated with long life spans. Randall Wells presents an outline of dolphin social complexity based on long-term studies on the communities in Sarasota Bay, Florida. And Katy Payne gives an overview of social complexity in the three elephant species.

Christophe Boesch describes examples of complex cooperation among Tai chimpanzees, in group hunts for monkeys and in territorial conflict with other chimpanzee groups. Christine Drea and Laurence Frank describe the social system of spotted hyenas and argue that more attention should be paid to social complexity in carnivores. It has commonly been argued that social stress is a consequence of subordination; Scott Creel and Jennifer Sands present evidence suggesting that it may in fact be a cost of domination, at least in some species.

Three of the papers debate the underlying mechanisms of social cognition. Ronald Schusterman et al. argue for equivalence classifications as a basic structure. In contrast, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney argue that "nonhuman primates are innately predisposed to group other individuals into hierarchical classes". And for Frans de Waal the conditionality of behaviour suggests a role for if-then structures in primate "social syntax".

Taking a comparative approach to laughter and smiling in primates, Jan Van Hoof and Signe Preuschoft find that "laughter has evolved in the context of joyful play, and that the broad smile has evolved as an expression of nonhostility and friendliness, taking its origin in the expression of fearful submission". Looking at vocal learning in four parrot species from Costa Rica, Jack Bradbury suggests that in "ecology, social organization, and vocal communication, parrots appear to be more convergent with dolphins than they are with other birds".

Gerald Wilkinson looks to bats for an independent test of the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis, probing the relationships between brain size, vocal complexity, and colony size. And Peter Tyack explores bottlenose dolphins' use of signature whistles in communicating social relationships.

Following in the footsteps of Imanishi, pioneer of Japanese primatology, Tetsuro Matsuzawa considers, as examples of "culture", sweet potato washing among Koshima monkeys and nut cracking using stone tools by Bossou chimpanzees. Toshisada Nishida describes the "flexibility and individuality of cultural behavior patterns" among chimpanzees at Mahale. And in "Ten Dispatches from the Chimpanzee Culture Wars" William McGrew gives an overview of the arguments between cultural anthropologists, psychologists, and primatologists (among others) over chimpanzee culture — and over the definition of culture.

Hal Whitehead looks at sperm whales, the cetacean culture debate more generally, and the possible effects of "cultural hitchhiking" on genetic diversity. And Meredith West et al. find a critical role for social interaction in learning and development in cowbirds and starlings.

In addition to the eighteen papers, there are a dozen shorter "case studies" which tackle narrower questions. Animal Social Complexity is an important contribution to the scientific literature. And it has a wealth of material for anyone fascinated by social animals and not intimidated by scientific methodology, a little bit of statistics, references and scholarly language.

January 2004

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%T Animal Social Complexity
%S Intelligence, Culture, and Individualized Societies
%E de Waal, Frans B. M.
%E Tyack, Peter L.
%I Harvard University Press
%D 2003
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0674009290
%P xiv,616pp