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Homo sapiens 2007: Primate Senses, Technology, and the Meaning of Humanness

This lecture is part of the Who Owns Our Species? Past, Present, Future Lecture Series presented by Nina Jablonski, Professor and Head, Department of Anthropology, Penn State.
When Sep 20, 2007
from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Where Berg Auditorium, 100 Life Sciences Building
Contact Name
Contact Phone 814-863-5911
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Nina Jablonski Nina Jablonski

Professor and Head, Department of Anthropology, Penn State

Nina Jablonski is Professor and Head of the Department of Anthropology at Penn State. She was trained in biology and anthropology, and conducts research in a number of areas, including primatology, paleoanthropology, and the evolution of human adaptations to the environment. You can read more about her research and her Penn State lab at Jablonski Lab.

Homo sapiens 2007: Primate Senses, Technology, and the Meaning of Humanness

Rock Podcast

Abstract: The complexities of human communication today are made possible by highly evolved senses and a very large brain, which are the products of millions of years of evolution in the primate lineage. Over time, humans have dramatically enhanced their abilities to store information outside of their bodies and to manipulate and exchange this information. These abilities present society with new challenges, including how we define human individuality, and how we regulate the production and exchange of information, including graphic imagery. This lecture will explore the fundamental question of how humans, with their complement of primate senses and communications skills, deal with the emergent properties of new systems of communication and information exchange.

September 20, 2007
4:00 p.m.
Berg Auditorium, 100 Life Sciences Building

Summary: As person-to-person communication seems to grow ever more immediate and convenient, we find ourselves dazzled anew by each emergent technological development – from the cellphone (with voice and text messaging), to the internet (with email and instant messaging), and other new technologies (like the iPhone).  However, according to anthropologist Nina Jablonski, viewed from an evolutionary or zoological perspective on human communication, these “advancements” remain but primitive substitutes at best for the rich and astonishingly complex communicational exchanges that take place in basic everyday conversation.

Professor Jablonski recently outlined her fascinating, and rather sobering, assessment of modern communication technologies in a September 20th lecture, “Homo sapiens 2007: Primate Senses, Technology, and the Meaning of Humanness.”  The lecture was the first in a distinguished series of 2007-08 talks sponsored by the Rock Ethics Institute, entitled “Who Owns Our Species?  Past, Present, Future.”

In her recent lecture, Jablonski turns her attention to the urgent question of how new modes of electronic communication affect social interactions in the context of human evolutionary history.  Jablonski concedes that “from the technological point of view,” we’re now “beginning to get a little bit more comprehensive in our one-to-one exchange of information.”  And yet, she points out, even with the recent developments of video conferencing technology and web-based applications like Flickr and YouTube, “we’re still a long way from the spontaneity of a conversation that can be held in remote locations.”

Jablonski doesn’t condemn modern technology.  Instead, she exposes its limitations in light of what scientists now know about primate evolutionary development, particularly with regards to human primate communication: “Primate and human communication evolved to convey complex information through multiple sensory channels, and to, in general, reduce the ambiguity of signals.  Technological innovations mask the fact that there’s an overall reduction in information content through most of these devices that we use.”

Jablonski insists that we must first take into consideration our “primate legacy” in order to appreciate the effect of new communication technologies on human social interactions.  Indeed, primates are “highly social animals”: they live in social groups; primate infants stay close to their mothers for a very long time; and groups as a whole tend to stay together for a very long time as well.  Over the course of their evolutionary development, primates have developed “superb mechanisms – social mechanisms – of avoiding and mitigating conflict” – a necessary ability, given the relatively long lifespan of such highly social animals.

But what about humans?  “Well,” Jablonski points out, “humans belong to a primate lineage that is characterized by . . . intense and complex social interactions that involve multiple sensory modalities, [and] a very, very rich panoply of sensory information.”  Moreover, thanks to our primate legacy, humans “possess many and varied social mechanisms for avoiding and mitigating aggression and violent conflict.”

To illustrate our evolutionary legacy, Jablonski points to a visual depicting a set of male gelada monkeys in “symbolic conflict” with one another.  Describing the scene, she notes that “each individual intently watches the other’s facial expressions, and minor changes in the facial expressions indicate changes in emotional state and whether that individual is going to back down from the confrontation or actually escalate to further aggression.”  As Charles Darwin first recognized nearly 150 years ago, and as many psychologists have recognized ever since, “facial expressions are associated with very specific emotional states.”  “They’re not arbitrary,” Jablonski states.  Rather, “most facial expressions are in fact universal and can be universally interpreted across primate species and from one human group to another.”  What’s more, primate facial expressions demonstrably alter the behavior of other primates.  (Conducting a brief experiment, Jablonski flashes a photograph of a smiling infant, and many in her audience respond instinctively with a smile in return – a demonstration of what scientists call our “mirror neurons” in action.)

“Generally,” Jablonski concludes, “in the vast majority of nonhuman primate interactions . . . the result [of a ‘symbolic conflict’] is a quieting of tensions, a subtle exchange of facial expressions and postures that leads to a diminution of aggression, rather than an acceleration of aggression. Very few such displays actually lead to serious wounding and physical aggression.”  According to Jablonski, this particular aspect of our primate legacy must not be overlooked.  “What we now recognize is that primate and human aggression is very much controlled and modulated by exchange of facial expressions and a mutual understanding and appreciation of facial expressions.”

In addition to the visual stimulus associated with facial expressions, touch also plays a crucial role in facilitating a peaceful coexistence amongst primates, as Jablonski illustrates with reference to the social import of grooming amongst various primate species.

In light of this overwhelming scientific evidence, Jablonski finds it particularly disturbing that so many media and historical representations have emphasized human aggression and our purported “warlike tendencies” – when in fact, she points out, “the vast majority of human primate interactions are peaceable and aimed at appeasing individuals, not inflaming them.”

Unfortunately, Jablonski laments, “the good side of our human primate nature doesn’t make news and is rarely elaborated.”  In a concluding question-and-answer session, she suggests that “we need to, through education, be a lot better about telling people . . . about their primate heritage and where humans really come from behaviorally.”  This is necessary in order to correct for the popular misrepresentations of our human “nature” as instinctively aggressive and warlike.  It is also only through such education that we may contribute to the development of truly advanced communication technologies in the future.

-- Christopher White, for the Rock Ethics Institute