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December 2, 2002

Seminar traces primate roots of human behavior

By Rachel Robertson

What is human nature? Should animals have human rights? These are some of the first questions Sally Gouzoules asks the students in her freshman seminar, “Primate Origins of Human Nature.” Everyone has an opinion, and the fear of speaking up in class quickly dissipates.

“This is a topic they can all get into pretty much immediately because they are all people,” said Gouzoules, lecturer in anthropology, neuroscience and behavioral biology. “We quickly get over that hump of a seminar—where it’s difficult to feel comfortable talking and engaging with one another—because they all feel like they are on common ground. No one is more of an expert than anyone else.”

The topic, as well as Gouzoules’ style of teaching, seems a perfect match for the freshman seminar format. She primes the conversational pump by requiring students to post comments about the readings on LearnLink. “They have begun to engage each other before we even get into the class,” Gouzoules said. “But they often say, ‘I want to pursue this more in class,’ so we get in there and they go at it.”

For many it is the first time they have been exposed to the study of primate behavior (primatology) and the notion that it can hold lessons about the evolution of human nature. The course readings lay out a historical perspective of primatology, beginning with The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. The book describes a model of human evolution that focuses primarily on male activities (such as hunting) as the primary stimulus for the development of the human brain.

“It’s a good example of a book that is very culturally situated,” Gouzoules said, “because the culture in which this was written was the early 1960s. So they can look back now and see how that is reflected in the portrayal of early hominid societies.”

A counter perspective is discussed in the next book: Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Evolution, by Alison Jolly. Arguing from a more female perspective, Jolly discusses the influence of female activities on hominid evolution. The approach takes into account “not just hunting, but the need to have cooperative behavior to share child-rearing duties while others are gathering,” Gouzoules explained.

Thus, beyond the simple facts of primate behavior, students are exposed to tough and possibly unresolvable questions of doing science in this field: Do men and women scientists view things differently? Will scientists always be influenced by their culture?

Human beings’ aggressive nature also is a hot class topic. One text, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, cautions that the male tendency toward aggression has its roots in early hominids and tracks the trait to modern humans. Gouzoules tied this perspective to current events by assigning a writing project in which students discussed this view with respect to the current and volatile relations between the United States and Iraq.

It’s not an easy course; there are about 150 pages of reading a week plus five writing assignments and a final paper. “Although the class is probably my most intense, I also have fun,” said freshman Hanie Elfenbein. “This class has become my favorite.”

“Actually having the intellectual material to engage is the critical feature with these seminars,” Gouzoules said, adding that accessible topics for freshman seminars spark the interest of the students and pull them deeper into discussions. “This lets them reframe their individual experiences into a broader more scientific, empirical framework.”

Of the students themselves, Gouzoules bragged, “They are just fabulous. They come into it so eager for intellectual engagement.

“They sit down at that table the first day and are ready to be in college,” she said. “The level of enthusiasm for intellectual engagement is just marvelous.”