How apes develop emotions

  • Barbara KingThe Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary, she was a participant in a Feb. 14 scientific symposium titled “The Expression of Emotions: Biocultural Perspectives.”

    Stephen Salpukas

    Barbara King
Barbara J. King, a specialist in emotions and communications among primates, spoke on “Ape Emotion and the Evolution of Human Behavior“ at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

King, Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary, was a participant in a Feb. 14 scientific symposium titled “The Expression of Emotions: Biocultural Perspectives.”

“Emotion in apes is comparatively little-studied,” King notes, as opposed to behavior and even cognition. She believes that emotions, in humans as well as apes, are most fully developed through social interaction, often right alongside problem solving. This emphasis on the role of social interaction sets her work apart from more genetic or so-called innatist theories.

As the author of books such as Evolving God and The Dynamic Dance that explore communication, social interaction and even the roots of religious feeling among primates, King has devoted an enormous number of hours to observing behavior in groups of great apes. She has introduced a qualitative component to research activity that typically deals with sheer quantitative aspects such as logging individual acts of grooming episodes She says that parsing emotional content from behavior takes patience and experience.

“One learns to look for some subtleties and to build up comparisons across different experiences.  When we look at children, in our homes, often there’s no question when they feel joy, when they feel happy or when they feel sad. One learns to read that in a child; this also is true for a pre-verbal child.,” she said. “It is not so different with great apes. You can read their muscle tone, their facial expressions, their gestures, then watch and see their behavior.”

She points out that she is not necessarily suggesting that ape emotions are the same as those shown by humans.

“I’m very careful not to say something like ‘that ape is jealous’ or ‘that ape is happy,’” she said, “but rather, I describe what I see in terms of their facial expressions and their gestures and their behavior, then I suggest from the context that they are expressing emotion.”

The annual meeting of AAAS, held this year in Chicago, is the largest gathering of American scientists at one event. A significant portion of the programming (including King’s symposium) was devoted to evolutionary topics, in that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work On the Origin of Species.