The Göttinger Freilandtage is a bi-annual international conference on timely topics in primate behaviour, ecology and evolution organised by the Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology Unit at the German Primate Centre (Deutsches Primatenzentrum). This meeting differs from many other conferences in that (1) one topic is comprehensively analysed from different perspectives, (2) leading experts focus on this topic for several days, and (3) there is plenty of time for formal and informal discussion. To achieve these goals, these meetings mainly feature presentations by invited speakers, but opportunities for contributed talks and poster presentations are provided as well.
Social complexity has been one of the most noticeable emerging topics in the study of animal behavior in recent years. Either the social system of some species in its entirety has been labeled as complex, or “complex” is used to characterize particular behavior patterns. Similarly, some bees, fish, gerbil, meerkats, baboons or killer whales, have, for example, been characterized as “highly social”, implying the existence of grades of social complexity, but these studies have often neither provided an explanation nor definitions of the potential components and levels of sociality that contribute to complexity, particularly for vertebrate taxa. In studies of social insects, a common understanding on social nomenclature has apparently been reached, and scholars of human societies and behavior also appear to have generally acceptable working definitions of social complexity. The recent tendency to attribute “(more) complexity” to some vertebrate species without precise definition and justification is not just a semantic problem, however, because it also hampers comparisons and functional analyses of sociality.
Whereas cynics might argue that “complex” is only added to the title of some publications to enhance their attraction for high-impact journals, there is clearly variation in the complexity of all aspects of social systems beyond variation in group size that deserves systematic study. Species vary not only in the average number of individuals that form social units, but also in how they are distributed in space and time, although this aspect has received little attention so far. In contrast, much more attention has been paid to the role of cognitive abilities, the nature of social interactions, including the ways in which group members communicate with each other, and social network analyses may provide a sophisticated tool to quantify and compare this variation. On the other hand, theoretical models (of primate behavior) and genetic analyses (in social insects) indicate that complex social systems can be generated with only a few simple rules. Furthermore, because most variation in social complexity appears to exist among species, comparative and phylogenetic analyses may provide insights about evolutionary patterns and drivers. Careful analyses of variation in social complexity and its correlates within interesting lineages are equally valuable in this context. Finally, human behavior and societies clearly represent the highest level of social complexity, so that understanding our own species in this respect may contribute an important scale for comparative studies, as well as further insights about what makes us human.
While exciting and cutting-edge research on all of these aspects is taking place in different disciplines, and on a diversity of study systems, there are few opportunities at professional meetings to address and discuss this complex topic (sic!) in an adequate manner. The goal of this conference is, therefore, to bring together the internationally leading researchers from each of these fields of study for a comprehensive discussion of what constitutes social complexity and how we can explain it with a broad Tinbergian perspective. Such exchange and discussion should yield insights about general patterns, facilitate cross-disciplinary interactions and identify areas for fruitful future research.
Invited speakers will provide overviews of different aspects of the general topic. We also welcome submissions for contributed oral and poster presentations.