Byrne, Richard W.


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Richard Byrne is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is a founder-member of the Scottish Primate Research Group and was recently Vice President of the International Primatological Society. In addition to authoring The Thinking Ape (OUP, 1995), which was awarded the British Psychology Society's Book Award 1997, and over 117 journal articles and book chapters, he is co-editor of Machiavellian Intelligence: Social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes and humans (OUP, 1988) and Machiavellian Intelligence II: extensions and evaluations (CUP, 1997). After a degree in natural sciences at the University of Cambridge (where he took First Class Honours, and was awarded the Wright and Hughes prizes), his PhD research was on human planning and thought at the MRC Applied Psychology Unit, Cambridge. Since coming to St Andrews, he has carried out field research on baboons, chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa, on topics including behavioural ecology, vocal communication and deception, manual laterality and feeding techniques. His work has frequently been featured on television and in newspaper articles. Current projects concern the development of complex manual skills in great apes, and the cognition of the domestic pig, as a contribution to a more scientific basis for welfare.
Commentary from Richard Byrne
My PhD used protocol analysis to study the use of memory in everyday problem-solving, so I was predisposed to see the value of high quality observations both in devising and in testing cognitive theories. I was lucky to get a job at St Andrews where ethological work was seen as part of psychology. Coming from the physical sciences originally ( I went to university imagining that my natural sciences degree would be largely physics), I never accepted the dogma, so prevalent in experimental psychology, that only laboratory experiments can furnish really sturdy data.
As a PhD student with John Morton at the Aplied Psychology Unit, Cambridge, it's inevitable that I was strongly influenced by the cognitive revolution in psychology: at that time, it was not the standard view that it is now (when I first came to St Andrews, I had to explain to puzzled colleagues why I insisted on calling my teaching 'cognitive' rather than 'experimental' psychology). My cognitive work had convinced me that psychology suffered from a lack of good observational analysis, and therefore too easily became paradigm-driven and divorced from everyday function. As noted already, this made me receptive to the ideas of (animal) ethology, and I enthusiastically moved in that direction – picking primate work mainly because, without advanced zoology training, I'd have felt less comfortable with other animal groups. (However, since my primate work has steadily moved in cognitive directions, it might be argued that primate study was more of a new way to get at cognition, than a new context altogether.) When I began work on non-human primates, I imagine my old cognitive colleagues and acquaintances despaired of a lost soul; I hope that my own work has helped change that perspective, and certainly I detect a far more open and broad-minded reception to evolutionary ideas within cognitive psychology in recent years.
I have always labelled this blend of cognition and evolutionary primatology, 'Evolutionary psychology', and the use of this same term from the USA (where it's often restricted to genetical theorizing about everyday human behaviour and laboratory data in psychology) is a coincidence – not one that I'm entirely comfortable with, though I think there's plenty of room for both ways of approaching a full understanding of cognition.