Volker Sommer

The Cultured Ape, why we Abide to Social Norms


Depending on ethnic background, people favour different customs and values – traits considered to be hallmarks of "culture". However, recent studies reveal similar degrees of intraspecific variance for many non-human animals, too – particularly for societies of our closest living relatives, the primates. For example, chimpanzee populations differ in dietary preferences and tool use pattern, but also in terms of what is considered socially acceptable. This creates a quasi-religious group-based morality and identity. Such constructions of "us" versus "them" regularly lead to violent clashes between neighbouring ape communities – intergroup conflicts that also permeate the course of human evolution. Cultural boundaries therefore create a sense of belonging as well as xenophobic feelings – conceptualized by anthropologists as "we-ness" (entitativity) versus "other-ness" (alterity). An evolutionary perspective can help us to better understand our often-parochial attitudes and behaviours towards members of our own species as well as towards other animals.





Volker Sommer is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology in the University of London. His research interests focus on the evolution of primate social and sexual behaviour, cognition, rituals, biodiversity conservation, animal rights and evolutionary ethics. His childhood "in the oak forests of central Germany" was shaped by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, where animals possess human-like characteristics. These narratives inspired him to pursue a career as a zoologist and ethologist. He studied biology, chemistry and protestant theology in Göttingen, Marburg, Hamburg and Berlin, obtained his PhD in anthropology (1985) and his habilitation in anthropology and primatology (1990) at the Universität Göttingen, Germany. He was Research Associate at the University of California in Davis, USA (1992-1994) and at Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand (1994-1996)., and joined the Department of Anthropology, University College London in 1996.