A Visit with Alan Alda

The Living Links Center was abuzz this week regarding the arrival of Alan Alda, the well-known actor from the 1970’s television comedy, “M.A.S.H.”

Alda made a return visit to the Living Links Center to discuss primate behavior and cognition as part of the upcoming PBS series entitled “The Human Spark,” which he will be hosting.

Along with producer Graham Chedd, our research team had the privilege of spending the day discussing our most recent findings regarding chimpanzees and capuchins from an evolutionary perspective. Alda’s genuinely curious nature and extensive travels were the groundwork for an enlightening exploration of our closest living relatives, and our understanding of human evolution.

For the purpose of this unique series, Alda has journeyed to various locations around the globe to document how primatologists are investigating empathy, culture, tool use and cooperation among chimpanzees. The Living Links team had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Alda and discuss our research in detail, focusing on the connections between humans, apes and monkeys. From the tower overlooking one of the large outdoor chimpanzee enclosures, Dr de Waal explained various food-sharing behaviors as the chimps enjoyed coconuts, watermelons and sugarcane. Alda’s crew also filmed some of the social learning experiments that have been conducted with chimpanzees by our team over the past couple of years. As the filming took place, chimps eagerly participated in different cognitive and tool-use tasks in order to retrieve food rewards. For Alda, witnessing the complexity of the negotiations and the distribution of prized food items as well as the problem-solving abilities amongst the chimpanzees seemed to authenticate some of the key elements of “The Human Spark.”

Overall, Alan Alda and the PBS crew provided our research team with an exciting opportunity to explain our evolutionary similarities and differences with non-human primates. The series is currently planned to air in 2009 and we are grateful to have participated.

Just before we sat down for lunch with Mr. Alda, we had a chance to grab a quick photo. From left to right: Darby Proctor, Victoria Horner, Matthew Campbell, Frans de Waal, Alan Alda and Devyn Carter.

— J. Devyn Carter