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Eloquent Gestures: When Apes Communicate, Barbara King Watches

Once every month or two Barbara J. King boards a train to see a Washington, D.C., family she has been visiting for years. Mandara, Kuja and their offspring greet her with gestures and grunts each time she enters their house. Picture by Cindy Baker.

And that's about all the anthropomorphizing King will allow. Yes, Kuja and Mandara recognize her, but what she really cares about is how this ape family communicates with each other.

"As an anthropologist it's not about the apes and me so much as just about the apes," she said. Studying the great apes-particularly their nonvocal communication-is more than King's life's work.

It's a passion that's led her to intriguing research and policy questions. She likens her informed observation of gorillas to curling up with a good Jane Austen novel. As the main characters reveal their distinct personalities through complex-even nuanced-interaction, the plot thickens.

Do Apes Have Emotions?
It's pride, and maybe a little prejudice, that we humans employ to contrast ourselves with apes. King was taking listeners' calls on National Public Radio's "Science Friday" when someone phoned in to ask if gorillas and chimpanzees have emotions. The question dovetailed neatly with what show host Ira Flatow seemed most curious about: How alike are great apes and humans-and how different?

"The caller's question was a good one," said King, Class of 2007 Professor of Anthropology at the College. "It allowed me to be specific about some of the cognitive and emotional abilities apes have and how I think the differences between ape communication and human language are only quantitative."

King and her assistants have spent hours observing the interactions among bonobos of the Language Research Center at Georgia State University and the gorilla family at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Two undergraduates, Margaret Robinson '05 and Ann Hagan '06, are just the most recent in a long line of young researchers who have contributed to King's work-Kendra Weber '02, Christy Hoffman '03 and Rebecca Simmons '04, to name a few.

The study of apes can yield quite a bit of insight into human behavior-and vice versa. King's approach differs from most anthropologists in that she is using dynamic systems theory-a method employed to study human communication-to explore nonvocal communication in bonobo and gorilla families.

King's most recently published book, The Dynamic Dance, details a number of exchanges of "social gestures" among a group of gorillas that includes the matriarch Mandara; her son, Kwame; adopted son, Baraka; another son, Ktembe; toddler Kojo; and the patriarch, Kuja. The exchange of social gestures-arm extension, touch, facial expression-leads to the creation of shared meaning in a process akin to the mutual adjustments of dance partners.

"I Do Apes"
In an interesting turn of events, one of the projects King is working on now does just the opposite: instead of using a human matrix to study great ape behavior, she's bringing all her experience as a primatologist to bear on the subject of human behavior. She's writing another book, this time about the evolution of religion, a subject she admits is a stretch for her.

When an editor approached her with the idea several years ago, King was skeptical. "I told him no," she says. "I do apes." But the more she thought about it and the more research she did, the more drawn she was to the subject. She began to see that what the editor wanted was someone to write about religion from the perspective of a primatologist. Were there signs in the behavior of great apes that foreshadowed the development of religion in humans?

"What I am talking about are complex social precursors that were the platforms for the much later development of religious rituals," King explains. "Apes have empathy, they have imagination, they have all these things that are completely unrelated to religion at the time in evolution I am talking about, but were the building blocks, nonetheless."

King is very aware that the evolution of religion is a tricky subject to tackle, especially for someone who already receives her fair share of emails and calls from people who want to save her or yell at her.

"It's a flash point, so I am jumping into the middle of it, of course, by choosing to write about these creatures being part of an evolutionary history of religion that goes back millions of years," she says. "Jumping into the middle of it" is exactly the direction King wants the next part of her career to take. She's involved with a number of organizations but the one that seems to meld the scientific and the innovative in the most satisfactory way is the Council of Human Development, an international think tank of biological and social scientists who want to apply their expertise to how human beings-especially small children-develop and function in relationship to the natural world. As the head of the council's evolutionary working group, King uses her experiences as a primatologist to explore solutions for some of the most implacable problems that confront us.

"The way humans act and relate with each other today has been shaped by the millions of years spent evolving in the intensely social primate niche," she says. "Our evolutionary history can help us as we raise our children," something that King pointed out in a recent op-ed.

Many of her current projects and passions are linked to opening up a dialogue with people outside academe about important issues of the day. Besides writing op eds, she is lecturing in public fora, such as the Smithsonian Residents Associates program. She wants to reach beyond the scientific community and challenge the public at large to really think about what they read in newspapers and see on TV.

"I tell them that evolution is the framework we use to organize our thoughts in science," she says. "Or I show on film the spectacular cognitive and emotional lives of the apes and then explain how drastic the future looks for them because of the bushmeat trade and habitat destruction."

This new public role King seeks can't always be comfortable given the controversial nature of some of her interests. But she wants to make a difference whether it's setting the record straight on evolution or talking about the conservation of the great African and Asian apes or promoting the healthy emotional development of young children around the world,

"Maybe it's partly an age thing," she laughs. "You reach a certain stage where for many of us what you are currently doing is just not enough any more."

King talks about lecturing for a purpose. She always has, of course, in the classroom and with excellent results as her many teaching awards attest. Now she wants to reach a broader audience and, she says, "be good at both."