Emory Report

January 11, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 15

Yerkes symposium examines 'Origins' of human behavior

Top scientists from a wide range of disciplines will converge on Emory's campus this week to address the roots of mankind's oldest concepts as part of the "Origins" Symposium, hosted by Yerkes' Living Links Center.

Besides calling together leading scholars to debate the origins of such ideas as war and peace, the Jan. 15-16 event will serve as a "grand opening" for the year-old Living Links Center, said its director, Frans de Waal. "It highlights the sort of issues the center seeks to address: to understand where we come from by studying evolution in general and the evolution of our closest relatives in particular," de Waal said.

The symposium's keynote speaker will be Harvard naturalist Edward Wilson, whose views on human and natural systems landed him in the pages of Newsweek magazine this summer. Wilson is a proponent of "consilience," a school of thought contending that many disciplines--if not all disciplines--of both social science and "pure" science are linked and explained by the same forces of physics. Such a social construct as the dynamics of a market economy, consilience holds, is a natural system just like any other (albeit more complex) and is subject to the physical laws of the universe.

"I'm a great fan of Dr. Wilson," de Waal said. "In his mind, and in the mind of every biologist, humans are animals and hence the product of evolution. No one objects to applying evolutionary theory to our species' anatomy and physiology, but the same is possible with human behavior. In all this Wilson was ahead of his time, and it is only now that the pendulum is moving back from 'nurture' to 'nature,' 20 years after he said it should."

Other notable speakers include Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lecturing on the origins of language; Dorothy Cheney, professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania, will address the origins of communication; Richard Wrangham, professor of anthropology at Harvard, will speak on the origins of war; Robert Frank, Goldwin Smith Professor of Economics, Ethology and Public Policy at Cornell University, will lecture on the origins of economics; and William McGrew, professor of zoology at Miami University of Ohio, will discuss the origins of culture. De Waal, Candler Professor of Primate Behavior, will speak on the origins of peace.

"Wrangham and I, by the way, hardly disagree; we just look at different sides--perhaps we could call them the dark and bright sides--of the same complex Homo sapiens," de Waal said. Culture is not unique to our species, McGrew will explain, and economics is based on a general human psychology shaped by evolution, as Frank will argue.

"The Living Links Center will not deal with all these complex issues, but we are definitely interested in the place of our species among other primates, in both the continuities and the differences," de Waal continued. "The symposium will help provide this perspective."

Wilson will deliver the keynote address Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. in Glenn Auditorium. All other lectures will be held Jan. 16 in WHSCAB Auditorium, and there will be a closing panel discussion at 5 p.m. The Origins Symposium is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required and de Waal expects crowds to be at capacity. For more information, call 404-778-7777.

--Michael Terrazas

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