Gestures of Human and Ape Infants Are More Similar Than You Might Expect

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Thirteen years after the release of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published another report on the evolution of mankind. In the 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the naturalist argued that people from different cultures exhibit any given emotion through the same facial expression. This hypothesis didn’t quite pan out—last year, researchers poked a hole in the idea by showing that the expression of emotions such as anger, happiness and fear wasn’t universal (PDF). Nonetheless, certain basic things—such as the urge to cry out in pain, an increase in blood pressure when feeling anger, even shrugging when we don’t understand something—cross cultures.


A new study, published today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, compares such involuntary responses, but with an added twist: Some observable behaviors aren’t only universal to the human species, but to our closest relatives too—chimpanzees and bonobos.

Using video analysis, a team of UCLA researchers found that human, chimpanzee and bonobo babies make similar gestures when interacting with caregivers. Members of all three species reach with their arms and hands for objects or people, and point with their fingers or heads. They also raise their arms up, a motion indicating that they want to be picked up, in the same manner. Such gestures, which seemed to be innate in all three species, precede and eventually lead to the development of language in humans, the researchers say.

To pick up on these behaviors, the team studied three babies of differing species through videos taken over a number of months. The child stars of these videos included a chimpanzee named Panpanzee, a bonobo called Panbanisha and a human girl, identified as GN. The apes were raised together at the Georgia State University Language Research Center in Atlanta, where researchers study language and cognitive processes in chimps, monkeys and humans. There, Panpanzee and Panbanisha were taught to communicate with their human caregivers using gestures, noises and lexigrams, abstract symbols that represent words. The human child grew up in her family’s home, where her parents facilitated her learning.

Written By: Marina Koren
continue to source article at blogs.smithsonianmag.com

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  1. It is amazing how similar gestures, reactions and even facial expressions (as surprise, for instance), can be to those of humans. I have observed some videotapes of a graduate student: the expression and reaction of surprise on a chimp´s face seems the same as those of humans, and not only the chimp was surprised as then he called his brother to observe the rubber snake too (I would call someone to observe what surprised me too), and how infant chimps run to their care takers and jump onto their lap after a period of absence (I used to do the same).
    There´s no doubt that the principle of continuity in evolution of the brain, as Darwin supposed, is of great importance to understand why is this so.

  2. I thought this was old news, I read Desmond Morris – Naked Ape and The Human Zoo decades ago, those books really helped me realise that human instincts, responses, gestures and behaviours are so similar to apes.

    • In reply to #2 by Light Wave:

      I thought this was old news, I read Desmond Morris – Naked Ape and The Human Zoo decades ago, those books really helped me realise that human instincts, responses, gestures and behaviours are so similar to apes.

      This is not new of course, but experiments are repeated and the study goes further as a prolific secure field. Among graduate students year after year, the search of surprise on facial expressions of the chimps, the one with rubber snakes from one student, another one with a busting balloon continues. Although the article refers more to gestures and communication rather than expressions.
      I guess that the study of facial muscles involved in human and chimp expressions is not yet done (I guess it was not some years ago).

      The editor did not accomplish its task then if nothing is important and “new”, deserving of being published.

      • In reply to #3 by maria melo:
        This is not new of course, but experiments are repeated…

        Desmond Morris explained in general terms most of what the article refers to and a lot more … but clearly new and important findings can confirm earlier research and more specific similarities, no disagreement there !

  3. ” This hypothesis didn’t quite pan out—last year, researchers poked a hole in the idea by showing that the expression of emotions such as anger, happiness and fear wasn’t universal (PDF). “

    Read the PDF and the hole, made by one study, seems rather small to me. for instance, the variance in facial expressions conveying the same emotion is small to open to the authors interpretation and magnified by too many computer moderated data points. Enough that small variations can be interpretively magnified

    ” Gestures of Human and Ape Infants Are More Similar Than You Might Expect “

    Actually, I expected them to be quite similar!

    .

  4. Not reliable, lol – Take anger for instance – I’ve seen people express anger from almost a slight raising of the eybrows (a Mormon evangelist giving out leaflets in the high street becoming a little annoyed in response to my joke) and a man smashing another into the floor outside a pub, so yes, it varies.

  5. In reply to #7 by TanyaK:

    Interesting that you should bring this up.

    Don’t think violence is necessarily a good indicator of emotional state. On the few occasions in which I have engaged in serious violence I felt strangely calm and collected. Witnesses reported to me afterwards that my features were completely smooth and that I seemed almost relaxed.

    • In reply to #8 by Peter Grant:

      In reply to #7 by TanyaK:

      Interesting that you should bring this up.

      Don’t think violence is necessarily a good indicator of emotional state. On the few occasions in which I have engaged in serious violence I felt strangely calm and collected. Witnesses reported to me afterwards that my features w…

      Quote from Peter Grant: “Interesting that you should bring this up.

      Don’t think violence is necessarily a good indicator of emotional state. “

      I think it is quite a good indicator, that even our responses to basic anger are mediated via cultural filters. For instance, until I was 11 I grew up in and around south London, and apparently when I become really angry I sound scarily like a girl version of Michael Caine, lol. I think we modify these things in many subtle ways.

        • In reply to #10 by Peter Grant:

          In reply to #9 by TanyaK:

          The point, I think, is that anger is only useful for deterring violence as a kind of display. When it comes to actual violence, it only gets in the way.

          Not really – it probably depends how good you are at it. My uncle was in the Paras for a number of years, and when he gets angry he is very good at sorting out a fight. It’s not about ‘display’ when things become truly violent, but just about trying to win and get it sorted out. Anger is a massive component in that.

          • In reply to #11 by TanyaK:

            Paris is a relatively civilised city, it makes sense that anger would be effective in sorting out “fights”.

            I live in South Africa and have only ever become physically violent when murderous criminals try assault me or someone else.

          • In reply to #12 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #11 by TanyaK:

            Paras is a relatively civilised city, it makes sense that anger would be effective in sorting out “fights”.

            I live in South Africa and have only ever become physically violent when murderous criminals try assault me or someone else.

            Erm – not Paris, the Paras, lol – ie the ‘Parachute Regiment’.

            I’m sure that showing unnecessary violence in South Africa is a bad thing – especially around Johannesburg – but that is my point – it is influenced by cultural awareness, not an innate and blind reaction. It is complex in that way, and open to several factors.

          • In reply to #13 by TanyaK:

            Erm – not Paris, the Paras, lol – ie the ‘Parachute Regiment’.

            The British ‘Parachute Regiment’? I’m pretty sure a stern look and sharp remark or two would be enough to embarrass the new recruits into line.

            I’m sure that showing unnecessary violence in South Africa is a bad thing

            Not to someone who is trying to kill you.

          • In reply to #14 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #13 by TanyaK:

            Quote by Peter Grant: “Not to someone who is trying to kill you.”

            Maybe I should have said ‘initiating’ unnecessary violence, ? lol. The thing is, though, that there are many degrees of expression, and many ways in which it can be controlled by not only human societies, but other species too – just look at the complex and clearly social activity shown by many animal groups.

          • In reply to #15 by TanyaK:

            Violence is not just an expression of anger, it is a strategy for survival.

            Getting rid of anger would not get rid of violence. It might even increase it.

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