Eric Michael Johnson, 36, is a doctoral student in the history of science at the University of British Columbia. At his Scientific American blog, The Primate Diaries ( http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries), he examines the intersection of evolutionary biology, politics and history. Follow him on Twitter at @ericmjohnson. Questions and answers have been edited.
Q: What first sparked your interest in the evolution of apes?
I was doing a Ph.D. in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and I was studying bonobo social behavior. I was specifically interested in mechanisms of cooperation between female bonobos. It’s rather unusual that females are so highly cooperative in this great ape species, despite the fact that they’re unrelated to each other. It’s a big mystery as to why this higher-level cooperation should exist.
Q: This comes up from time to time on the blog, but what does it mean to “think like a primate” when trying to understand human behavior?
I think of it in terms of trying to triangulate behaviors. We can get a better sense of what it means to be human by comparing our own behavior to that of other apes and other monkeys. If there’s a common behavior in multiple species and we have a similar or more recent evolutionary connection with these species, there’s a good chance that same behavior existed in our common ancestor.
Q: Having been immersed in the topic so long, are you ever surprised by the links between human and primate behavior?
At this point, I can’t say I’m completely surprised. Once in a while, a new story will come up that does shake me up, just because it’s more forcefully connected to our own behavior than I anticipated.
There was a study that just came out discussing how in macaques, individuals will come to one another’s aid when someone gives an alarm call if that individual is a “friend.” It’s suggesting that the closer individuals are connected to one another, the more likely they will cooperate with others and protect one another, giving some idea of the mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation.