The above talk is promoting his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. I have been a big fan of his previous book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Violence.
The Edge.org post includes an interview. This bit is interesting:
I make my living studying chimpanzees and their behavior in Uganda. I'm really interested in looking at the question of human evolution from a behavioral perspective, and I find that working with chimps is provocative because of the evidence that 5 million, 6 million, maybe even 7 million years ago, the ancestor that gave rise to the Australopithecus, the group of apes that came out into the savannahs, was probably very much like a chimpanzee. Being with chimpanzees in the forests of Uganda, as with the forests anywhere else in Africa, is pretty much like going into a time machine and enables us to think about the basic principles that underlie behavior.There's a lot more interesting Wrangham material in the Edge.org posting, go read it. In addition to Wrangham, there is a video of Alison Gopnik talking about her research and her new book The Philosophical Baby and Douglas Rushkoff talking about his new book Life Inc..
Although humans are enormously different from the apes, the extraordinary thing that has emerged over the last two or three decades — and this is becoming increasingly clear recently — is that in maybe three big ways in particular, humans are more ape-like in their social behavior than you would expect to occur by chance. Moreover, there's something about our relationship to the apes that has carried through in terms of our behavior. To take an example, there are only two mammals that we know of in the world in which males live in groups of their male relatives and occasionally make attacks on individuals in neighboring groups so brutally that they kill them. Those two mammals are humans and chimpanzees. This is very odd and it needs explanation.
We've got three things that are really striking about humans and the great apes in parallel. The violence that chimps and humans show is pretty much unique to those two species. Then you have the extraordinary degree of social tolerance in humans and bonobos, another ape that is equally closely related to humans. And then you have a remarkable degree of eroticism in bonobos compared to humans. These parallels are not easily explained and raise all sorts of provocative questions, given the fact that humans have so many differences from the other apes in terms of our ecology, our language, our intelligence — our millions of years of separation.
One of the lovely things that's going on now is the discovery that in East Africa we have a series of behaviors that characterize the chimps that are different from the behaviors that we see in extreme West Africa — in Christophe Boesch's site in the Tai forest in the Ivory Coast, for example, and Bossou. We're seeing chimps in the east that are relatively fragmented in their groups, that have relatively little sexual activity, that have few female-female alliances, that have extreme male dominance over females — and all of these things are different in the west. In the most stable groups in the west, the females form alliances, the males are much more respectful of females, and there is much less violence in the community in general. There's very much less infanticide, and there are much less severe forms of territoriality. This is exciting, because it means that we can dissect the chimpanzee species and ask, where are the ecological influences and what effects are they having? And what does this mean in terms of trying to reconstruct the kind of chimpanzee that gave rise to us seven million years ago?
The answers are becoming clearer. In my field work I am trying to understand what it is about the ecology that leads to differences in behavior. A real key that has been given extraordinarily little attention is the fact that in some populations, the apes are able to walk and feed at the same time. In others they're not, because there's no food for them as they're walking. This sounds like an extraordinarily trivial difference, but it seems to be enormously important, because if you can walk and feed at the same time, then you can stay in a group with your friends and relations without additional members causing an increased intensity of feeding competition. On the other hand, if you are walking without feeding between the key food patches, then every time an additional chimp comes along and joins your party, the effect is that feeding competition is intensified in these food patches. And there is no melioration when you're moving between food patches. The long-term effect of this is that it fragments the parties, and it's the fragmented nature of these parties of chimps that don't have ability to walk and feed at the same time that underlie all of these social differences.