Word of the Day: evolutionäre Anthropologie

Yesterday was extraordinary.  Before coming to Leipzig I had heard many good things about the local zoo. Suffice to say that our time at the Leipzig Tiergarten surpassed all my expectations.  It’s not going too far to say that after over six hours there I kept wondering when I might have the opportunity to go back.  It really is that impressive.  The highlight for me was the primate exhibit.  Doris, a lawyer in Leipzig who has been invaluable to ACU groups past and present in helping us navigate German law, organized a special tour of the primate research center, a branch of the Max Planck GesellschaftThe Leipzig zoo hosts a regular cadre of researchers from around the world engaged in interdisciplinary inquiry that combines biology, genetics, social psychology, and other humanities-based disciplines, all clustered around a focus on the evolution of behavior in higher primates and humans.  Thus today’s word of the day, evolutionäre Anthropologie, or “evolutionary anthropology,” is an apt label for the research field of scholars who spend their time at the center. In the words of the Institute:

“The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology unites scientists with various backgrounds (natural sciences and humanities) whose aim is to investigate the history of humankind from an interdisciplinary perspective with the help of comparative analyses of genes, cultures, cognitive abilities, languages and social systems of past and present human populations as well as those of primates closely related to human beings.”

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In a blog of this sort, I can only begin to scratch the surface of what I learned during our time with the primates.  The orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and great apes are each housed in their own enclosures and have communities defined by a complex array of species- and group-specific social hierarchies. The orangutans, for example, orient themselves in relation to a single alpha-male, the orangutan who greeted us quickly upon our arrival.

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Bonobos by contrast, organize their hierarchy in relation to a single alpha-female and are generally less aggressive, relying on sexuality and social ingratiation as forms of social interaction. Our tour guide, an undergraduate intern with the Institute, told us that one of the chimpanzee communities is currently experiencing conflict, with one male chimpanzee attempting to displace the current alpha-male and the entire group unsettled, forming cliques and trying to resolve the clash. The complexity of relations within primate communities boggles the mind.

Normally, my experience at zoos is muted by the relative inactivity of the animals during hot summers in Abilene, when one is more inclined to watch animals taking cover in the shade. In this primate exhibit, by contrast, things were happening all the time.  We spent nearly an hour in the morning just watching mothers interact with their young, observing chimpanzees eat food, climb to get a better view of things, and even a few who would come up to check out visitors through the window.  In the afternoon I spent nearly thirty minutes seated quietly, watching two orangutan infants wrestle with one another, with mom occasionally pulling them apart.  Late in the afternoon zoo workers appeared above the enclosures to throw food to the primates, an event that led to amazing displays of athleticism, occasional arguments over food, and so much more.

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I would not have minded staying all day in the primate exhibit.  It was that interesting.  No doubt, some of my interest here is intellectual.  I’m intrigued by the scientific exploration of the evolutionary basis for animal and human behavior, on conversations about how this research intersects with theologically-shaped accounts of human identity.  I’m also interested in research about moral behavior and the development of systems of morality among primates. Our tour guide is doing research that engages different theories that explain the development of nonverbal symbols among primates.  He spends at least one hour a day filming young chimpanzees, observing and coding nonverbal signs.  Over time, his project will explore what happens with different nonverbal signs in the larger group. Interesting stuff! ACU’s department of psychology takes students to Leipzig during the summer, and the Institute itself has an internship program that permits students to apply for extended research visits at the center.  I’m not a researcher in social psychology, but I have served on ACU’s undergraduate research council, which has done great work over the last 5 years cultivating a culture for undergraduate research at our university.  I’m curious about the possibilities the Institute might offer for some of our undergraduate psychology majors.

Aside from spending the entire day at the zoo, last night I joined three of our students for a night at the UT Connewitz, which was screening the 1926 German silent film, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed. This film is the oldest surviving animated film, using cardboard cutouts manipulated frame-by-frame to create a 65 minute tale about Prince Achmed’s adventure in a foreign land and his battle against an evil magician.  The film’s narrative text was in German, so some of the details of the story were lost on me until later in the evening when a few of the German student mentors could help piece together the plot.  The coolest part of the evening was the three person jazz combo from Berlin that provided the background music for the film, offering us jazz-rock fusion soundtrack that made everything seem surreal, modern, and “trippy.”  I’m really glad I went.

That’s all for now!

About vbm95u

Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics Abilene Christian University Abilene, TX
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