Spotlight on… Stuart Semple

Stuart Semple

Position: Professor in Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Roehampton

Bio: Stuart completed his PhD in 1998 at the University of Sussex with a dissertation on the topic of female copulation calls in barbary macaques. After completing his doctorate, he held a research fellowship at the Institute of Zoology, London before joining Roehampton in 2002.

Research interests: Stuart’s main research interests are in the areas of primate behaviour, conservation and welfare. He has a particular interest in primate communication; his work in this field extends from doctoral studies on behavioural deception and macaque vocalizations, to more recent research on language evolution. He collaborates frequently across disciplinary boundaries, on projects that combine approaches from biological anthropology with those from psychology, social anthropology and quantitative linguistics.

Most significant work: In a study of rhesus macaques, Stuart demonstrated that mothers were more likely to give in to the crying of their infants if there were high ranking animals in the near vicinity. This was due to the fact that crying appears to irritate these bystanders, leading them to be aggressive to the mother and/or the infant…to avoid the aggression, mothers have little choice but to give in to their squawking young! This work is important because it shows that communicative interactions between two individuals can be shaped by who else is around. This effect is common in humans but little understood in other species. You can read the full story behind this paper here.

Latest project: A fundamental goal of the life sciences is to identify universal biological principles – the basic rules of organisation that underpin diverse natural phenomena. Working with a range of international collaborators, Stuart is aiming to identify such principles, by exploring the universality outside our own species of the common statistical patterns of human language, known as linguistic laws. The research has focussed on two laws: Zipf’s law of abbreviation (which predicts a negative relationship between word length and frequency of use) and Menzerath’s law (according to which longer sequences are made up of shorter constituents). Projects to date have found patterns consistent with one or both of these laws in the vocal communication of geladas, Formosan macaques and chimpanzees. The researchers have demonstrated that the common mathematical principle of compression underpins these two laws, and have argued that this may be a universal principle underlying not only primate vocal communication, including human language, but also biological information systems much more broadly.

Teaching: Stuart teaches intensively in the world-renowned Master of Research in Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation.

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