Barbara King studies ape emotions for clues on how humans evolved

“I think that people who talk about humans as very unique in terms of our emotional meaning-making should take a look at the apes,” says King, “because apes have quite a lot to tell us about our evolution – not so much about how we live life today – but how we became Homo sapiens as we are today.”

Barbara King: If we look carefully at modern apes, we can look at a model for our past.

Barbara King is an anthropologist and ape expert at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. King studies apes both in the wild and in captivity, filming them to find subtle expressions of what she says are their emotions.

Barbara King: We look at, for example, difference in muscle tension, whether there’s a lot of tenseness in the body or a relaxed, loose-limb sort of gate, whether there are pursed lips, and we try to correlate that with states of aggression or relaxation.

King is examining how apes, particularly mother and infants, express their emotions most fully in social relationship.

Barbara King: I think that’s why I’m so drawn to studying mothers and infants and families, because their bonds are so clearly expressed in emotion. People who talk about humans as very unique in terms of our emotional meaning-making should take a look at the apes, because I think that they have quite a lot to tell us about our evolution – not so much about how we live life today – but how we became Homo sapiens as we are today.

King asserts that because humans share a common ancestor with apes, studying their emotions reveals how human emotions might have evolved.

Barbara King: The fact that we see this emotional expression, grief and empathy and joy and depression in apes in the wild and in captivity is so robust, gives us a suggestion that this happened as well in the past, and it was a platform for us. This was in place before we humans began to evolve.

Dr. King talked more about the scientific evidence for her findings that emotions in apes arise from social interactions.

Barbara King: The evidence is just really just spending a lot of time with apes, watching them and filming them. So in other words, what might seem fairly subtle to a person who hasn’t spent a lot of time hanging around with apes is really very striking to primatologists.

King says scientists need to observe ape emotions in the wild as well as in captiviity.

Barbara King: I have done a lot of reading and talking with people who study apes in the wild, from Jane Goodall to Christophe Boesch, and others, and we do see these very same types of emotional expressions. Because it’s so robust and because of Darwin’s insight about our common descent, we know that this must have been a platform. This was in place before we humans began to evolve. As a result, I think that it tells us a place to start looking and asking questions about our human evolution over the last six million years when we evolved away from the apes.

EarthSky asked Dr. King to describe what an ape emotion is.

Barbara King: For example, there was a female killed by a leopard, the entire group surrounded this dead body. And the alpha male of the group allowed certain infants and individuals to come close, most particularly the dead ones brother. He sat at the body. He expressed what can only be called grief by pulling on her hand, trying to find out what had happened to the sister that he apparently had deep love for. We look at that and find similar examples in captivity. Here in Chicago, at the Brookfield Zoo, an adult female gorilla died, and the group allowed the group to come and grieve at the body. And so what you see is that depressed posture, that sorrowful pulling on the body that, they don’t cry, they don’t do exactly what we do, but the entire sort of gestalt is really of some sort of sorrow coming out. And that’s a dramatic example.

Jorge Salazar