Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, London
Volker Sommer is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology in the University of London. His research interests focus on the evolution of primate social and sexual behaviour, cognition, rituals, biodiversity conservation, animal rights and evolutionary ethics. Scientific adviser to the Section on Great Apes and the Section on Small Apes of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Sommer is a founding scientific board member of the German-based Giordano-Bruno Foundation for Evolutionary Humanism, which promotes a scientific and secular worldview in the tradition of the Enlightenment.
Sommer studied biology, chemistry and protestant theology in Göttingen, Marburg, Hamburg and Berlin. PhD in anthropology (1985) and habilitation in anthropology and primatology (1990). He received various early-career fellowships (DAAD, Alexander-von-Humboldt-Foundation, DFG Habilitationsstipendium). During his time as a Heisenberg-Fellow of the German Research Council, Sommer was a Research Associate at the University of California in Davis, USA (1992–1994) and at Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand (1994–1996).
Sommer’s initial field study of animal behaviour focused on langur monkeys in Rajasthan, India – since 1981 as a doctoral student and afterwards as a post-doc. Personal highlights include residing for some years in a Shiva-temple. — From 1989, he became part of a long-term study of white-handed gibbons in Thailand. Here, he lived for several years at the edge of the Khao-Yai rainforest. Personal highlights include being set upon by a tiger – and surviving. — In 1999, in Nigeria’s mountainous northeast, Volker Sommer founded the Gashaka Primate Project with a specific focus on monkeys and chimpanzees. Personal highlights include the first ascend of Gangirwal, West Africa’s highest mountain, through the montane jungles of its southern escarpments – thus reliving how 19th-century explorers mapped out Africa’s “white spots”.
His philosophy and academic line of study brought Volker Sommer increasingly into contact with contemporary artists, who at times accompany him to his field sites in the rainforests of Africa and Asia. These encounters have inspired creative minds such as Carsten Höller, Marion Porten, Damián Ortega, Julie Hill, Amalia Pica or Marcus Coates to create exhibits that went on display in Germany (Gallery Esther Schippe & Michael Krome, Cologne; Kunstverein Wolfsburg; Hygienemuseum Dresden; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin) London (Freud Museum; Wellcome Collection; Frieze; Shonibar Studios) and Bogotá (NC-arte). Sommer’s visit to Basle will include a joint workshop with Marcus Coates.