The Anthropology of Emory and Ebola

Postdoctoral fellow, Laura Jones, PhD, studies communication and team building among hospital operating room staff. Recently, she wrote a Blog post for the BMJ journal Medical Humanities discussing Emory University Hospital’s experience with treating Ebola. EUH operated under an M.O. of being over-prepared but not paranoid, which allowed them to effectively treat the Ebola patients that came through their doors.

To read the full blog post click here.


Chimps share rather than compete for monopolizable resources

A new study co-authored by current Living Links Center graduate student, Sarah Calcutt, was recently published in Behaviour:

Captive chimpanzees share diminishing resources


Two chimpanzees sharing a hole while fishing at an artificial termite mound.

Wild chimpanzees routinely share high-value resources such as meat obtained through hunting and fruit procured from raiding crops. Although it is predicted that the proximate mechanisms for sharing behaviour are the result of reciprocity, interchange and mutualism, examinations of these factors in captivity have not mirrored the degree to which they are found in the wild. The goal of the current study was to investigate how a group of seven captive chimpanzees responded when a highly desirable and monopolizable resource diminished over the course of eight months. To do this we measured the amount of time that was spent sharing food at an artificial termite mound as well as the relationship between dyads that spent time sharing. Our results contradicted our predictions that rates of aggression would increase and the number of individuals fishing at the termite mound would decrease when resources diminished, as we observed no difference in either variable over time. We did, though, find an increase in the amount of sharing as the number of baited holes decreased. We also found a correlation between the strength of dyadic relationships outside of the study and the amount of time that individuals spent sharing with each other.

You can click here to check out the full article.

Frans de Waal on the Science of Cooperation and Empathy

Originally posted on Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. See the original here, or read below.

Intersections at WID: Primatologist Frans de Waal on the Science of Cooperation and Empathy
Renowned primatologist Frans de Waal stopped by our Institute to share his latest thinking on the roots of morality.

Primatologist, researcher and author Frans de Waal, currently the C.H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and former UW–Madison researcher, has authored numerous popular books on non-human primate behavior and research, including his recent work The Bonobo and the Atheist, which examines the evolutionary roots of morality through observations and research on animal behavior. De Waal stopped by the Institute to visit colleagues Jessica Flack and David Krakauer and give a Very Informal Seminar talk for the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation (C4), a research group in WID.

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Chimpanzees Play the Ultimatum Game

The Ultimatum Game is the gold standard of the human sense of fairness. People have played it all over the world, but until now nonhuman animals have never successfully engaged in this game. One individual needs to propose a reward division to another that the other needs to accept before both can obtain the rewards. Obviously, this procedure is not easily arranged without language.

Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, in collaboration with colleagues from Georgia State University, are the first to obtain positive results with chimpanzees. They have shown that our closest relatives possess a sense of fairness that has previously been claimed to be uniquely human. The findings are now available in an early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggesting a long evolutionary history of the human aversion to inequity. Possibly, the common ancestor of apes and humans shared a similar preference for fair outcomes.

See chimpanzees play the ultimatum game here!

The Yerkes team wanted to determine how sensitive chimpanzees are to the reward distribution between two individuals if both need to agree on the outcome. According to first author Darby Proctor, PhD, “We used the Ultimatum Game because it is the ultimate test of the human sense of fairness given both partners must agree on a distribution for either to receive rewards.” Humans typically offer generous portions (such as 50%) of the reward to their partners, and that’s exactly what Proctor and her team recorded in their study with chimpanzees.

Co-author Frans de Waal, PhD, adds, “Until our study, the behavioral economics community assumed the Ultimatum Game could not be played with animals or that animals would choose only the most selfish option while playing. We’ve concluded that chimpanzees not only get very close to the human sense of fairness, but that they may actually have exactly the same preferences as our own species.” For purposes of direct comparison, the study was also conducted separately with human children.

In the study, researchers tested six adult chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and 20 human children (ages 2 – 7 years) on a modified Ultimatum Game. One individual chose between two differently colored tokens that, with his or her partner’s cooperation, could be exchanged for rewards (small food rewards for chimpanzees and stickers for children). One token offered equal rewards to both players, whereas the other token favored the individual making the choice at the expense of his or her partner. The chooser then needed to hand the token to the partner, who needed to exchange it with the experimenter for food. This way, both individuals needed to be in agreement.

Both the chimpanzees and the children responded like adult humans typically do. If the partner’s cooperation was required, the chimpanzees/children split the rewards equally. However, with a passive partner, who had no chance to reject the offer, they went for the selfish option.

Chimpanzees, who are highly cooperative in the wild, likely need to be sensitive to reward distributions in order to reap the benefits of cooperation. Thus, this study opens the door for further explorations into the mechanisms behind this human-like behavior.

New climbing structure for chimps!

We just renovated one of our chimpanzee habitats. You can see pictures of the chimps enjoying their new climbing structure below.

The chimps were very excited about the new structure. We had a lab pool going to try and guess who would touch it first. Matt won by picking Tai! Kudos Matt. Other chimps soon followed, and they seem to be enjoying their new play space.

The new climbing structure.

Tai climbing the ladder. She was the first chimp to get on the new climber!

Steward (the alpha male) enjoying some apples on the climber.

–Darby Proctor

Frans de Waal on the human primate: Make love, not war

This was originally posted on Scientific American. See the original here.

Editor’s Note: This post is the last in a four-part series of essays for Scientific American by primatologist Frans de Waal on human nature, based on his ongoing research. (The first post, on our sense of fairness, can be read here; a second post, on the impact of crowding, is here; and a third post on power and coalitions is here.) De Waal and other researchers appear in a series of Department of Expansion videos focusing on the same topic.

The origin of human aggression and warfare remains hotly debated. Until now, this debate has been dominated by what chimpanzees do and how this compares with our own species. It is little known, however, that we have an exactly equally close primate relative, the bonobo. This species makes Hobbesians very uncomfortable, so they do everything to marginalize it. One anthropologist seriously suggested that we should ignore bonobos, because they are close to extinction, not realizing that by the same token we should also ignore “Lucy,” “Ardi” and all those other ancestors that bit the dust. Others treat bonobos as a wonderful afterthought, a great curiosity, but irrelevant to where we come from.

The first study to compare bonobos and chimpanzees was carried out at the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich. German scientists made a list of differences between both species, including the bonobo’s sensitivity, peacefulness and obvious sex drive. If these differences were already known in the 1950s, one might ask: Why was the bonobo absent from the debates on human aggression, and still is? Well, that study was published in German, and the time that English-speaking scientists read anything other than English is long past. Another reason is cultural: Victorian attitudes prevent most American or British scientists from touching the bonobo’s eroticism. In the 1990s a British camera crew traveled to the remote jungles of Africa to film bonobos only to stop their cameras each time an “embarrassing” scene appeared in the viewfinder. And National Geographic never published the explicit bonobo pictures brought home by one of its photographers (which were subsequently put to good use by this photographer, Frans Lanting, and myself in Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape).

But far more important is the fact that bonobos fail to fit established notions about human nature. Believe me, if studies had found that they massacre one another, everyone would know about bonobos. Their peacefulness is the real problem. I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later—or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!

Bonobos act as if they have never heard of the killer ape theory that remains popular in anthropological circles. Among wild bonobos there’s no deadly warfare, no male dominance, and enormous amounts of sex. They make love, not war. Science had more trouble with them than a 1960s family had with its long-haired, pot-smoking black sheep who wanted to move back in. They turned off the lights, hid under the table and hoped that the uninvited guest would go away.


Frans de Waal, PhD, is a Dutch-American primatologist known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982) and The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009). He teaches at Emory University in Atlanta where he directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.