The promise of primatology fulfilled?

James P. Higham, Nathaniel J. Dominy

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    In 1972, Sherwood Washburn, one of the forerunners of biological anthropology, gave an invited address during the 4th Congress of the International Primatological Society in Portland, Oregon, in which he expounded his vision for the field of primatology. His address was published the following year in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and titled: “The promise of primatology.” In this centennial commentary, we revisit Washburn's “promise”, 45 years on. His address and article discuss the constraints acting on the field, including a positioning of the discipline across different kinds of university departments, and within the social sciences, which he viewed as a mixed blessing. Prescient aspects of Washburn's address include a focus on the need to study communication multimodally, and a hope that the study of mechanisms would become foundational within the field. We discuss new promising aspects of primatology, focusing on technological advances in a number of areas highlighted by Washburn that have ushered in new eras of research, and the increasingly large number of long-term field sites, which see the discipline well-set for new developmental and longitudinal studies. We find much to admire in Washburn's keen foresight, and natural intuition. Washburn hoped that primatology would repudiate the notion that “the social should be studied without reference to the biological.” In this regard, we consider much of Washburn's promise fulfilled.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)783-790
    Number of pages8
    JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Aug 2018


    • history
    • philosophy
    • primatology
    • social sciences
    • washburn

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Anatomy
    • Anthropology


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