Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2014 | In Class

Animals R Us

By Kathryn Howe
A UI sociology class draws thought-provoking comparisons between human and animal behavior.
In the hierarchy of their society, two males engage in a dramatic, shrewd, and ultimately violent quest for the desired title of "alpha male." In his bid to overtake Yeroen, Luit schemes and builds coalitions, while Yeroen throws temper tantrums over his loss of power.

Not unlike what America sees every election cycle—only Yeroen and Luit aren't human. They are chimpanzees.

While studying the world's largest captive chimp colony at the Arnhem Zoo, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal gathered groundbreaking insights about the social behavior of humankind's closest relatives. In his celebrated book Chimpanzee Politics, de Waal shows that these chimpanzees offer a stunning insight into basic human needs and behaviors—in this case, the desire to cooperate toward the building of a stronger community and potentially better life. As one book reviewer said: "As we watch the chimpanzees of Arnhem behave in ways we recognize from Machiavelli (and from the nightly news), de Waal reminds us that the roots of politics are older than humanity."

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was so impressed with what Chimpanzee Politics implied about social order and control that he included it on a 1994 list of recommended reading for freshmen congressmen.

While people tend to anthropomorphize animals by assigning them human characteristics and behavior, researchers like de Waal cast light on the animal-like characteristics within us. Such insights inspired UI sociology professor Alison Bianchi to create the first-year seminar "Group Processes: It's Not For People Only," which considers the similarities between human and animal social behavior—including what this might say about humankind, as well as the universality of all living creatures.

"We are all part of the same world"

-Alison Bianchi

The sociological term "group process" describes how two or more beings come together, share a common definition of a social situation, and then interact in ways that show patterns. Throughout the eight-week course, Bianchi proves to her 16-strong class that such social communication belongs to many species, including elephants, dolphins, bees, and macaques—from the way elephants flap their ears in happy greeting to the shared childcare arrangements bees make with the adults in their nests. "What we learn about the group dynamics of other species," she says, "can often tell us much about ourselves."

The first part of the class approaches peacemaking and the way different species resolve conflict, focusing on chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans, and drawing upon another de Waal text titled Peacemaking Among Primates. The book's cover illustration shows one chimp extending an arm to another—the chimpanzee way of saying "I'm sorry."

While earlier animal researchers concentrated on aggression and its motivators—suggesting that both primate species and humans may be predisposed to violence and war—Peacemaking Among Primates considers the notion that the animal kingdom's more natural state is one of peace and cooperation.

De Waal does not deny that animals can behave aggressively, but he points out that all species have checks and balances when dealing with confrontation, seen in the way chimpanzees develop and use coalitions to return to a balanced order, rhesus monkeys groom each other after a tiff, and bonobos resolve tension and re-establish intimacy through "makeup" sex.

"Biological drives have a lot to do with conflict resolution," says Bianchi, who is also director for the Center for the Study of Group Processes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Department of Sociology. "In bonobos, it hinges on sex. In humans, the biological drive to eat might prompt a couple to go out to dinner after a fight."

To make her points relevant, Bianchi asks students to examine behavior in their residence halls to identify any coalitions and their purpose—perhaps to help students feel popular and powerful or to build a new social circle and feel less lonely away from home.

Students also analyze conflict behavior in their own romantic relationships, if they have one, learning to view confrontation not as a social obstacle, but as an inevitable phenomenon that can lead to stronger connections.

After exploring how other species resolve conflicts, Bianchi looks at human understanding and forgiveness, particularly some powerful concepts from Stanford University psychology professor Fred Luskin's "Forgiveness Project." Luskin has conducted extensive research on what he calls "forgiveness therapy," concluding that learning the skills of forgiveness leads to greater health and happiness.

"When I ask my students how they forgive someone, I get a lot of blank stares," Bianchi says. "Many of them have no idea how to do that."

Together, they learn that forgiveness means realizing that others have experienced the same pain—a connection with the human condition that often leads people to look at themselves and others with more empathy and compassion. Bianchi then explains that forgiveness means releasing grievances: "At some point, one has to ask, 'Am I going to allow this to ruin me or am I going to give this its due and let it go?' It's also surprising to learn that forgiveness doesn't mean the person who wronged you actually says, 'I'm sorry.' It's more about you."

The second half of the course, anchored by Mark Bekoff's book Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter, turns to the expression of emotion among animals and humans.

To enhance her lessons, Bianchi brings a furry visual aid to class—her dog Shevek. Many of her freshman students miss their childhood pets, and when Bianchi asks whether they think their animals back home possess emotions, most respond with an emphatic "yes."

For a long time, scientific consensus held that animals simply behaved in response to stimuli. Charles Darwin suggested that animals may have the same emotions as humans, just not as developed or intense. Elephants are known to display emotions that range from joy to sorrow. In their grief over a lost loved one, they will return to a gravesite to touch and move around the bones of the departed.

The complex behavior, intelligence, and communication of whales and dolphins also suggests these mammals may experience emotion that includes mourning and happiness.

The hypothesis that animals feel and express emotion remains a growing field of research riddled with controversial implications and huge questions. When Bianchi asks her class to describe Shevek's feelings as he surveys the room, many students surmise he's happy.

"We can't assume what an animal's emotional response is," warns Bianchi, adding that scientists don't fully understand why animals do what they do. "And that goes for humans, too. We have to be careful because we never know 100 percent what another person is feeling."

So far, evidence suggests that animals likely possess some human-like emotions, some of their own, and perhaps some not yet identified. A recent study by Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Burns concluded that dogs have the same biological capacity for emotional experience as humans. After Burns trained several dogs to hop up onto a MRI machine so he could scan their responses to hand signals, he noted an unmistakable similarity between dogs and humans in the caudate nucleus region of the brain, an area associated with anticipation of joy. In an article for the New York Times, Burns wrote that many things that activate the human caudate also trigger this region in dogs, and therefore it is possible that canines experience a level of sentience similar to that of children.

Thanks to such insights, UI students leave the course with a greater capacity for critical thinking in their everyday interactions with both the humans and animals in their lives.

"Obviously, there are significant differences among species and us, but there are also some similarities," Bianchi says. "We are all part of the same world—and animals show us that part of the way we survive is through conflict resolution, forgiveness, and empathy."