Emory Report

 December 1, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 14

New primate research center
aims to provide Living Links
to questions of human evolution

Emory and the Yerkes Primate Center have announced the creation of the Living Links Center, an interdisciplinary endeavor aimed to study the evolutionary connections between humans and their closest living relatives.

Using the animal populations housed both at the Yerkes site on campus and the Lawrenceville field station, the new center will focus on behavioral, cognitive, neurological and genetic links between hominoids-humans and apes. Examining these links is key to understanding why cdrtain characteristics arose in Homo sapiens, from the concept of morality to what genetically separates a human from a chimpanzee, said the center's director, Frans de Waal, Candler professor of psychology.

"Human genes and chimpanzee genes are 98.6 percent identical," de Waal said. "What is it in that 1.4 percent that makes us different? And when we see chimpanzees act with sympathy and empathy toward each other, does that hint at the possibility that morality is an evolved trait we share?"

Also, the creation of the center is another move for Yerkes toward using chimps solely for noninvasive research. Since that move hasresulted in fewer biomedical grant dollars for the chimps, Yerkes Director Tom Insel said he must look to other sources of support. "We have 200 chimpanzees at Yerkes, and they're expensive to maintain," he said. "We've been trying to give away and donate as many as possible, but we're going to have quite a few left behind that can be the focus for this center."

Since the center was formed only in September, de Waal is the sole faculty member right now. But Insel said work has been going on for some time at Emory that relates directly to the center's mission; psychology's Michael Tomasello, for example, is doing cognition work with apes, and anthropology's Melvin Konner helped Insel and de Waal plan the center's goals in that field. The work of Steve Warren in biochemistry and Doug Wallace in molecular medicine and mapping genomes provided valuable guidance in outlining research needs in that area, and Insel said that genome research would probably be the field of study for the first faculty search the center conducts.

"They've been involved in developing the ideas for the center and helping us think about whom to recruit," Insel said. "We'd like to make this not just the nation's but the world's center for the study of hominoid evolution. We already have a lot of the resources we need; what we need to do over the next five years is develop the infrastructure."

De Waal said he'd like to see the center's budget eventually climb to $300,000, and he plans to do quite a bit of fund raising from private sources to complement any federal money the center might receive. In fact, one aspect of the center de Waal hopes will draw private donations is conservation; he hopes to set up some kind of field site in Africa to study chimps in the wild.

"Field research is something we haven't done very much of at Yerkes, and that is certainly something we're looking at," de Waal said. "Every one of these animals is on the endangered species list, and I think some kind of field component to our work would fit both the center's research and conservation mission, not to mention student interest in wildlife ecology."

In fact, de Waal's own research in behavioral studies, both in apes and in monkeys such as rhesus macaques, provides a solid foundation for the center. He is one of the country's leading primatologists, and his work in reciprocity and peacemaking among primates is one of the reasons he was chosen to direct the Living Links Center.

"People too often use the word 'animalistic' to describe negative human behavior; if two countries are at war and killing each other, we say they are 'acting like animals,'" de Waal said. "But some of the most basic positive behaviors, such as sharing and what might even be called 'forgiveness,' are displayed in the monkeys' behavior."

Both de Waal and Insel defer much of the credit for Living Links to Chancellor Billy Frye who, as provost, suggested last year that human evolution is too important a field to ignore, given Emory's existing advantage of having a resource like Yerkes at its fingertips. "This was, in many ways, his brainchild," Insel said. "He wanted to have Emory become a preeminent institution in this area."

-Michael Terrazas

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