Faces of ESLR: Stuart Watson

I’ve been fascinated by animal minds since I was very young – it absolutely baked my noodle that something as small as a bee or ant could have such seemingly complex lives! For some reason though, it took me until my early 20’s to realise it might be possible to turn this interest into more than a hobby. Armed with this goal, I began a Masters degree in comparative psychology at the University of York, which gave me the incredible opportunity to spend several months studying the social transmission of ‘dialects’ in the vocal behaviour of chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo. Now fully in love with primates and keen to experience them in the wild, I spent a year at the Inkawu Vervet Project in South Africa, following wild vervet monkeys and studying (amongst other things) their abilities for social learning. This led me to a PhD at the University of St Andrews supervised by Andrew Whiten, where I explored the factors shaping how chimpanzees make decisions about when to use social information, including the influence of demonstrator rank, social context, and individual differences. 

Merging my interests in cultural evolution and communication, in 2017 I began a postdoc at the University of Zürich where I have been taking a comparative approach towards the study of language evolution ever since. In particular, I’m interested in the evolutionary continuity between the seemingly relatively rigid communication systems of animals, and the incredibly open-ended, flexible nature of language. Because this is a relatively young field, there’s really exciting discoveries being made all the time, and the more we look the more we seem to find commonalities between features of language and non-human communication. I’m really excited to find out where this progress will begin to slow down and finally let us draw some hard lines around our sketch of what our pre-linguistic ancestors were capable of!

Finally, I am one of the current organisers of Culture Conference (www.culture-conference.com), a free conference for anyone interested in cultural evolution. Come and join us in Zürich in early 2024! 

Outside of my academic life I’m a proud father of two perfect cats, sporadic rock-climber and avid boardgame enjoyer.

About the author

Stuart Watson