December 19th, 2008
Spark Blog: Alan Alda Meets the Chimps

Alan describes where we’ve been looking for The Human Spark to some members of the North Carolina press. Photo: Maggie Villiger

Asheboro, NC

A small horde of North Carolina TV and print journalists converged on the North Carolina Zoo early this morning to see Alan meet the chimpanzees there – and hear from him about our project. We were there to meet not only the chimps, but also the newly appointed Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, Brian Hare.

Brian is only 32, but has already had a stellar career as a researcher into the social skills of chimpanzees and their close relatives, bonobos. Alan, having entertained the journalists, was making friends through the thick plate glass with Hondo, the alpha male of the NCZoo chimp group when Brian arrived. When the two men sat down to chat, Hondo, who had been calmly munching breakfast, suddenly hurled his whole body at the glass where Alan was sitting.

Hondo in a more contemplative mood than when hurling himself at Alan through the glass. Photo: NC Zoo by Tom Gillespie

Brian: That’s just, “Hello and welcome to the neighborhood.”

Alan: To my neighborhood, right?

Brian: Exactly, to his neighborhood. That’s exactly it. He just knows who’s the alpha male out here and he wants to make a potential coalition partner of you, Alan.

Hondo’s display unfortunately left a large smear on the glass that we had to live with for the rest of the interview. But his outburst allowed Brian to make an important point about one of the differences between chimps and humans that we’ve set out to explore: chimps have a much harder time controlling their emotions.

Brian: He can’t inhibit. “You guys are new… I’m really excited… I need to display.” And so he makes a plan over the next 60 seconds but it’s not the next 60 days, as we might. But Hondo is a very nice guy, he has a long history with humans and the truth is he just wants some attention.

One of the major themes we’ll be tackling is how much chimps (and other non-human primates) see others as having minds like their own. This has been a hugely controversial subject over the last few years, and Brian has been in the thick of the debate. Alan and Brian got into it right away:

Click the image to view larger. Brian and Alan discussing chimpanzee minds – while chimps keep an eye on what’s happening on the human side of the glass. Photo: Maggie Villiger

Alan: It’s so interesting to look into their eyes, because there seems to be a look of some comprehension. I mean, I get a look back from him. He’s observing me. It looks like thought is going on.

Brian: That’s one of the things our research has been all about, trying not only to figure out, do they think, but are they thinking about you thinking? And when they look into your eyes, is it like you looking into somebody else’s eyes, where you are trying to size up somebody and say, “Oh, what does he know? Is this a friend? Is this somebody who is a foe?” That’s part of the excitement, trying to figure out exactly what is going on in their heads.

In the coming weeks we’ll be trying to figure out what’s going on in the heads of chimps and monkeys at research facilities here the United States, as well as the Caribbean, Europe and Africa. And along the way we’ll be taking a look into the heads not only of our fellow primates but also of our own species – as well as a species that’s much more distantly related – dogs – who are apparently better able to understand certain human social cues than our primate cousins. Brian Hare was actually the first to suggest this, way back when he was an undergraduate.

Hondo, meanwhile, kept up his attempts to be a part of the conversation, and will no doubt eventually succeed in getting his opinions expressed on your television screen…

— Graham Chedd

Learn a bit more about Brian Hare’s research with chimpanzees, bonobos, dogs and foxes from these articles:

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