Watching monkeys make friends: Q&A with Lauren Brent

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Lauren Brent speaks at TED@New York

We know other primates are a lot like us. But how close are they, and what can we learn about ourselves from them? Lauren Brent is a primatologist and evolutionary biologist who has spent years studying social bonds — particularly friendship — with an eye to learning how and why those behaviors evolved. We talked to her just after she rehearsed for her TED@New York talk, one of the 13 events in our 2013 talent search.

Why do you want to spread your idea among a TED audience?

There are lots of levels to it. I love evolution and am passionate about the study of evolution. I think that any message that has an evolutionary basis to it, whether it’s explaining our lives or explaining other animal’s lives, is important to get out there. Ultimately understanding our lives from a biological basis can be, and is, really beautiful and powerful and I wish more people who would do it.

I think the idea of friendship and monkeys and people and other animals all being interconnected in a social way is interesting because it’s incredibly complex. I mean, I think we can intuit it now because we know about Facebook and social media sites — we can see all the indirect connections that we have, right? But maybe other primates have those indirect connections too. It’s not like it’s going to help a monkey get a job because he’s indirectly connected to so-and-so down the street, but at the same time maybe it — the ways that they’re connected in the same way that we’re connected — maybe that does something for their lives too.

How did you get the idea of studying friendship in other species?

I started off being interested in social behavior in humans. I thought, as an undergrad, “Humans are really weird. We’re so weird. I mean all these social interactions and behaviors we have. What’s up with that?” That’s how I started studying monkeys, because I wanted to understand biologically why it is we do some of the things that we do. If monkeys do those things too, then maybe we can use them as a model for understanding ourselves.

Is this something no one thought to look for before?

No, it’s been a growing field. Part of it is that to ask evolutionary questions we need to know about how it influences reproductive output. Just like people, monkeys don’t have that many babies in their lifetime — and they live a really long time. Often you have to wait for them to die before you can say, “This one did all of these behaviors and had ten babies, and this one did this set of behaviors and only had five.”

So, primatology was started up in the 1960s, we’ve been collecting data on primates for years and years and years. It’s just now that we’re getting to the point where these long-term field sites have started to come into fruition and produce results that we can link up, like lifetime reproductive success. Of course, those aren’t my results. In that respect, these sort of answers are relatively recent, they’ve all been published in the last nine years or so.

I was coming into the field right when all of this was coming to a head. So I was like, “Great, this is what interests me.” We’re getting all these amazing results out of the long-term field sites — these people who’ve been doing this much longer than me are producing all of this amazing data — that’s what I want to study. I happen to work at one of these long-term field sites where we can amazingly get all sorts of biological samples, so we can work out stress hormones. So actually, what my focus largely has been on the association between stress hormone levels and social relationships. So the monkeys who have more friends — less stress hormones.

Does that mean you take blood from the monkeys?

No, I do it with feces. Cortisol levels in the feces. I follow them around, I collect their poo, and, voila.

Watch out for more Q&As from the TED@NY event throughout this week. Head to TalentSearch.TED.com to watch and rate these talks, as well as those from the 13 other stops along the TED2013 Talent Search tour.