Babies and chimpanzees have a lot in common. They both like sweet fruit, such as bananas. They both express themselves with a range of sounds—grunts, shrieks, bellows—that bear little resemblance to human speech. Neither wears proper shoes or uses a conventional bathroom. Both prefer their mother’s face and voice to any other. They share 98.5 percent of their DNA. And both are sources of endless delight and fascination to grown-up humans.
To certain Emory researchers, infants and apes are also sources of endless enlightenment about their close (if slightly less interesting) relatives, adult human beings: how our brains develop and function, why we behave the way we do, and the mysteries of our motivations and emotions.
Anyone who has seen a newborn baby turn its head toward the sound of its mother’s voice knows it’s surely no coincidence. Eugene Emory, professor of psychology, has used highly advanced fetal brain imaging to show, among other discoveries, that blood courses at different rates on the two sides of the brain in response to auditory stimuli. Emory’s findings shed light on “left brain vs. right brain” thinking: even from the womb, the brain—particularly the left side—may be “primed” to respond to such sounds as the baby’s mother singing.
To Emory researchers, infants and apes are
sources of endless enlightenment about their
close (if slightly less interesting) relatives:
adult human beings
And if you are transformed by the sight of an infant—any infant—from a competent adult into a cooing, babbling, sing-songing stranger, don’t be embarrassed. Debra Mills, associate professor of psychology, has found that baby talk may actually help infants acquire language.
Even as Associate Editor Mary Loftus was putting the finishing touches on her feature story about infant development research (“What Babies Know”), we learned that Psychology Professor Philippe Rochat had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his continuing research in developmental psychology. In his book The Infant’s World , Rochat explores the baby brain, finding cognitive function among even the tiniest humans to be much more organized, sophisticated, and perceptive than we once thought. “As the secret keepers of our origins,” Rochat says, “infants are the most basic expression of what it means to be alive as humans in this world.”
Chimpanzees and their slightly smaller cousins, bonobos, share a similar claim: they, too, are strongholds of the secrets of human origin. Renowned primatologist and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology Frans de Waal has spent more than twenty years observing and studying nonhuman primates; his rich store of knowledge has yielded revolutionary conclusions about how close we really are on the evolutionary tree.
In his fifth book, Our Inner Ape—named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2005—de Waal uses ape society as a mirror to human nature, showing how easily the reflections match up (“Of Primates and People”). But while well-known comparative studies from the 1960s and ’70s gave us the “killer ape” theory, largely based on observations of violent behavior in chimpanzees, de Waal also offers us the bonobo: a long-lost, likeable hippie cousin from the other side of the family.
Bonobos are as close to us genetically as chimps, but in terms of temperament they couldn’t be more different. Chimp societies are hotbeds of male-dominated politics; bonobo females hold the power, wielding primary influence over the two things that matter most, food and sex. Chimps use aggression to settle disputes; bonobos use sex, turning to fornication rather than fisticuffs to restore peace. Chimps are naturally violent, but capable of great tenderness; bonobos are naturally easy-going, but capable of brutal fighting when provoked. By giving equal attention to both apes, de Waal exposes us to the wide range of behaviors we share with them, illuminating the evolution of some of the most basic aspects of human nature.
The work of these Emory researchers is dedicated to discoveries that will advance what we know about human cognition and behavior, spawning new theories, new therapies, and new ways of looking at life and how we live it. Turns out, babies and chimpanzees have something else in common: while they’re both adorable, amusing creatures whose antics we love to watch, they are also complex beings with a high level of sophistication governing their brain function and behavior. And both have much more to teach us than we ever imagined.
—Paige P. Parvin 96G