The Ultimate Classifier – Colin Groves


Colin Groves

Colin Groves was Emeritus Professor of Biological Anthropology at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, and regarded as the “father of primate taxonomy.” That said, Colin’s book, Ungulate Taxonomy is no less important than his Primate Taxonomy, and, until recently, he continued to pour over museum specimens and walk far-flung areas in his unending quests. This interview took place just three weeks before his passing on November 30, 2017, aged 75 years. For bridging Africa and Asia in his work, and being a self-styled flea in the creationist ear, ACT celebrates the life, work and legend of Colin Groves.

 – Ed. Pai

Pai – Thank you for speaking to the ACT. Firstly, tell us what made you immerse in the amazing world of animals?

Colin – When I was 5, my grandfather gave me a book on mammals, and I never looked back. From my teens, I would go to the Natural History Museum in London, and Peter Crowcroft and John Hill would let me look at the collection, while Robert Hayman introduced me to the literature.

Pai – Were your school days any pointer to your chosen career? Tell us about your childhood friends, please.

Colin – At school I specialized in both Biology and Classics, and I had friends in both fields, but we gradually drifted apart and the only school friend I keep up with is from my Classics classes; he is now an Emeritus Professor in English Literature at the University of Kent.

Pai – You must have sat at the feet of some great teachers. And can you recollect your star students for us?

Colin – My chief mentor was John Napier of London University, the man who founded Primatology. Of my former PhD students, I would particularly mention Erik Meijaard and Ben Rawson (both now big names in Southeast Asian conservation), the primatologists Samantha Bricknell, Judith Caton, Thanh Hai Dong and the late Hu Gang, the Western Australian conservation biologist Jackie Courtenay, the bioarcheologist Letresha Martin (now a novelist under name Letresha Own), and the paleoanthropologists David Cameron and Ian Gilligan.

Pai – What is your take on the long-standing controversy about Sir Charles Darwin deception of Alfred Russell Wallace?

Colin – Darwin had always treated Wallace honorably. As soon as he received Wallace’s letter and short article, he went into a panic, afraid his exclusivity would be “smashed,” and consulted Lyell and Hooker, who knew he had been working on the same topic, and they organized a joint presentation, or a series of three presentations at the next Linnaean Society meeting.

Pai – Given the ongoing troubles for immigrants across the world, how did things pan out for you when you settled in Australia? Did you consider research institutions in the U.S. to pursue anthropology?

Colin – I did teach for two years at the University of California, Berkeley, but returned to England to work again with John Napier. When his research funding dried up, I taught for a while at Cambridge University, then applied for and got a lectureship here at the Australian National University, which I took up in 1974. No problems at any time. Australia is a nation of immigrants, and it is only in the past 15 years or so that the present disgraceful attitude towards refugees has been fostered mostly by successive governments in Australia.

Pai – Tell us about your first foray to Africa and your abiding interest in primates thereof?

Colin – I became interested in colobus monkeys, and wanted to make some brief observations on an unstudied species, Colobus angolensis. To visit sites at which this species occurred, in Tanzania, in 1971 I travelled by 4-wheel drive vehicle through many wildlife areas. In company with a professional photographer I took a one-day trip to the Tana River in Kenya, and saw the endemic Red Colobus and Mangabey species; the following year I organized a small expedition, with Peter Andrews and Jenny Horne, to survey the habitat of these two species, estimate their numbers and distribution, and generate interest in their conservation. But in 1971, after my colobus surveys, I went to Dian Fossey’s camp in Rwanda to see Mountain Gorillas and study collected skeletons.

Pai – As we celebrate continental ties in primate conservation in this ACT issue, how contextual is your work straddling Africa, Asia and the Neotropics spanning more than four decades?

Colin – I have never been to the Neotropics, unfortunately, but my work on African and Asian primates, especially their taxonomy, continues, and I continue also to work on other mammals of Africa and Asia (and, to an extent, Australasia).

Pai – Please narrate for us the Homo ergaster story

Colin – On my two visits to Kenya, I was shown the latest finds from Koobi Fora by Ron Clark. I was very struck by a jaw, labelled ER 992, which had a general primitive structure but very small teeth, and I discussed this with Ron Clarke. As it had been already briefly described by Richard Leakey and others in Nature, it appeared to me that its status was open for discussion, so when I got together with my Czech friend and colleague, Vratislav Mazák, we decided to make a proper description of it in the context of other “gracile” fossils from Olduvai and South Africa; it appeared to us to be so different that we eventually gave it a name, Homo ergaster. Richard Leakey wrote to me saying that we ought to have waited until it had been fully described in detail in a specialist journal, and I could see this, and I apologized to him (He bore no lasting grudge, and in our meetings and correspondence since then we have got on very well). As crania began to be discovered at Koobi Fora, the question arose whether the jaw 992 “belonged” to the small-brained 1813 or to the much larger-brained, “erectine” 3733 and 3883. For a while I espoused the 1813 affiliation, whereas Vratja thought it was likely to be the same taxon as 3733 and 3883, and he turned out to be right. Today, specialists seem to be about evenly divided between those who regard it as "African erectus” and those who recognize the species as valid – this resolves itself into a division between those who divide the human lineage into grades (therefore including an “erectus grade”) and those who adopt the evolutionary species concept.

Pai – Please tell us about the debate surrounding Homo floresiensis and its relationship to modern humans.

Colin – Soon after Homo floresiensis was described, Maciej Henneberg and Alan Thorne produced their first publication proposing that LB1, on which the original description was largely based, is in fact a modern human microcephalic dwarf.  Later, they collaborated with Teuku Jacob and Etty Indriati and others in an elaboration of this hypothesis. A team led by Debbie Argue examined LB1 and showed that the Henneberg et al. hypothesis was untenable, and that the species Homo floresiensis is valid, and probably derives from an early stage in the genus Homo. An Israeli group proposed that, instead, LB1 was an individual with Laron syndrome. Peter Obendorf and Charles Oxnard poured scorn on the Laron syndrome hypothesis, while proposing just as silly hypothesis, namely, that the remains (this time not merely LB1 and LB6 and others as well) were cretins or people suffering from extreme iodine deficiency.

A few years ago, the Australasian Society for Human Biology organised a sort of roundtable, to include Charles Oxnard, Maciej Henneberg, Debbie Argue and me, in which each of us gave a presentation. Henneberg surprised everybody by proposing that, contrary to what he himself had proposed earlier, LB1 was suffering from Down’s Syndrome. In my presentation, I pointed out many features of the "Hobbit" remains were outside the morphological range of modern humans. To judge by reactions given to me and Debbie afterwards, everybody at the meeting regarded the "pathology" hypotheses as dead.

Earlier this year, Debbie Argue, Bill Jungers, Mike Lee and I produced a detailed cladistic analysis showing that Homo floresiensis is most likely sister to either Homo habilis or to Homo habilis plus all other later Homo. In other words, its ancestors left Africa before any other protohuman or human species.

Pai – You were among the professors on the committee of the world’s oldest Master’s degree graduate, the 94-year-old Phyllis Turner. Was she an exception or would you say age is no bar for scholastic achievement?

Colin – Curiously, Phyllis Turner's lead supervisor was Maciej Henneberg! I would say that age is certainly no bar for scholastic achievement; it is simply that people of her sort of age tends to lack confidence in their own abilities, and must be supported and given confidence. Certainly, Phyl Turner did not lack confidence. At her graduation dinner in Adelaide, it was difficult to shut her up!

Pai – There are several controversies in primate taxonomy and interminable debate to reclassify, simplify and rename species. Who takes the call and why does it take forever?

Colin – I think it is simply that many primatologists are trained in anatomy or a general socio-ecological primatology, and are therefore on the margins of biology. A survey of the specialist taxonomic literature shows that an evolutionary approach is most widespread: you classify organisms according to cladistic principles, and species are evolutionary lineages (in most opinions, these are best recognized according to the Phylogenetic Species Concept, i.e. species are populations which are consistently different). This means that there are objective criteria for recognizing species: they are testable, as scientific propositions should be. It is not a matter of “how much difference does that have to be before you call it a species?” A species is a quality, not a quantity.

Pai – Which museum do you believe is a priceless repository for anthropology and what have you discovered among its treasures?

Colin – In Europe, four museums which stand out are the London Natural History Museum; the Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris; the Zoologisches Museum, Berlin; and the Leiden museum (Naturalis). These stand out because they are old, their collections are still, to this day, not well worked over (not the fault of a succession of curators, but simply because their collections are so huge), and there is still much to be discovered about what our predecessors did and thought in these venerable institutions. In Paris, for example, Jaques Cuisin, Cécile Callou and I discovered the tarsier specimen described by Buffon and Daubenton in the 1860s, and other specimens dating from that time are there. Of less ancient vintage, but still a treasure trove, is the Powell Cotton Museum in Birchington, Kent, England. The Indian Museum and Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata contain many specimens from the early and mid-19th century. In the USA, the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard also has 19th-century specimens, especially those collected by Grandidier in Madagascar; and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington, and the Field Museum in Chicago have major collections, although 20th-century. The Zoology Institute in Beijing and the Shanghai Natural History Museum share between them the huge late 19th century collection of Père Heude. The Singapore and the Bogor (Indonesia) collections contain important early 20th century specimens.

Pai – What is your favorite destination for watching mammals live?

Colin - When I could still travel, I enjoyed visiting wilderness areas in Africa. My last trip was to a conference in South Africa, after which some friends and colleagues took me to Mountain Zebra National Park and Addo Elephant National Park. Near Canberra, where I can still travel, I love to visit the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.

Pai - Who are the primatologists you admire and why?

Colin – Tom Struhsaker has enormous experience throughout Africa, where he has taken special pains to visit red colobus in as many different areas as possible, collecting behavioral data, vocalizations etc.  John Oates combines thorough field skills with a great understanding of taxonomic questions.

Pai – Please explain the similarities and differences in your approaches while writing your books Primate Taxonomy and Ungulate Taxonomy?

ColinPrimate Taxonomy was written while I was rethinking my taxonomic outlook, and seems, looking at it now, to be a bit of a hybrid. When writing Ungulate Taxonomy, I had the benefit of years of collaboration with Peter Grubb, and we had discussed taxonomic philosophy during the last years of his life; and I inherited all his unpublished museum notes. So, I think the second book is more “complete” than the first, but even so my thinking has moved on – but, whereas I feel happy that Peter did approve the evolutionary species, I might not feel so easy nowadays with attributing my present stance to him.

Pai – What are the pros and cons of primate conservation in Africa?

Colin –  Conservation bring in big revenues to governments but hardly trickles down to the local people. Once people in Africa, as anywhere else, absorb the unique nature of their heritage, they will become proud of it and anxious to preserve it, but they do need to make a living as well. The other huge problem is the population avalanche; more people need more space, more food, more water, at the expense of wilderness areas and wild animals which will eventually be exterminated.

Pai – Please tell us about your association with the Australian Skeptics.

Colin - I was introduced to this group by a friend I had known in Cambridge. I did a lot of work combating creationism (writing on the topic, asking questions at creationist meetings, and they held one rather formalized debate), and have also written a little on other themes such as cryptozoology. I was given lifetime award three years ago, and was made a lifetime honorary member of the Canberra branch.

Pai – What do you see as your significant contribution in conservation and is there something you would have done differently in hindsight?

Colin – My contributions have mainly been in taxonomy – identification of species important for conservation. However, I did talk to a Kenyan government minister in 1971 and got the conservation of the Tana River forests on the agenda.

Pai – Are you passionate about photography? If so, tell us about the equipment you use.

Colin – I always try to photograph live animals and when possible, museum specimens as well. Early on, the field was equally divided between black-and-white and color photography, and I used both, with a Pentax camera and 200 mm lens in the field. About 15 years ago, digital cameras became affordable enough that I could invest in one, and since then it has been possible to photograph much more freely. If only digital photography had been possible in the early 1970s!