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Lessons from Primatology for Humans: Attending the 40th Anniversary of Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University

The Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University has marked the fortieth anniversary of its founding, and it was sixty years ago that primatology was established as a field in Japan. This makes 2007 a celebratory year in several respects, and symposium was held at the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University to commemorate these landmark events.

On Sunday, June 3, I attended the commemorative lecture held in the Yayoi Auditorium of the University of Tokyo. The venue is an old wooden lecture hall, one of the few that still exist, and amid this calm and comfortable atmosphere five world-renowned researchers gave presentations: Dr. Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Director, Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University, on the child-raising of chimpanzees; Dr. Juichi Yamagiwa, Lab of Human Evolution Studies, Department of Zoology, Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University, on the sociality of the gorillas; Dr. Gen Suwa, The University Museum, the University of Tokyo, on the human qualities of fossil hominids; Dr. Frans de Waal, Emory University, U.S., on the evolution of sympathy; Dr. Svante Pääbo, Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, on a comparison of primate and human genomes. Both Dr. de Waal and Dr. Pääbo have been named among the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine this year.

It became clear to a non-specialist like myself, not only from viewing fossils, but also by looking at the genetic level, how we have come to have the qualities that define us as human beings over the course of seven million years of evolution from the common ancestor of human and primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. To me, this implies that humans are not necessarily special life forms on the planet, even with respect to the emotions, and there is much we can also learn from primates about the deplorable facets of human character that should be rectified. This is something that I touched upon in my previous message last month.

Dr. de Waal's presentation left a particularly deep impression on me. He noted that sympathy and empathy, advanced emotional functions considered to be reserved for humans, were amply found in bonobos and chimpanzees. According to research, these developed early in the process of evolution, for example, in elephants and other mammals, and can be seen in a basic form in birds. I understand this to mean that these programs of advanced emotional/mental functions have developed through a combination of the basic programs of emotion acquired during the process of evolution. Furthermore, this is related to the program of emotion that activates the behavior of mimicry, and in my view, indicates that we need to rethink the mimicking behavior of newborns as well.

Dr. Pääbo presented some astonishing research on the squeaking of transgenic mice that carry a human gene related to language, another significant feature of humans. I am not able to pass judgment on the validity of associating a change in squeaking with language production. I was, however, very moved by this research on the mechanisms of evolution that ventured to employ such methods. It was a little sensational that humans and chimpanzees differed in only 1.2% of their genetic makeup, but this is no longer so surprising given what scientists are capable of doing now.

My personal interest in primatology derives from my interest as a pediatrician in child-raising. It began while I was studying in England in 1962-1964 and read that the scientist Jane Goodall succeeded in feeding chimpanzees in Africa, and published a record of her observations of chimpanzee child-raising in National Geographic. And at this commemorative event, I also learned much from Dr. Matsuzawa's research on the chimpanzees Ai and Ayumu, which goes beyond child-raising to broach issues of education. It has indeed suggested many ideas on how to improve the education of human children.

Quite a long time ago now, during the 1979 International Year of the Child, with the help of a rather generous research grant from a foundation supported by a life insurance company, I put together an interdisciplinary team to conduct research on child-raising. I was able to invite Dr. Jane Goodall to the symposium held to commemorate the end of the two-year research period through the good offices of Dr. Junichiro Itani, Dr. Matsuzawa's mentor. The symposium presentations were published by Sogensha Publishing under the title Oya to ko no kizuna (The Bond between Parents and Children) in 1984 and this played an important role in furthering research on child-raising.

Thereafter, Dr. Goodall began to visit Japan every year, and the Jane Goodall Institute Japan was established with the help of Dr. Itani's son as an organization to support her. Attending the commemorative lectures on June 3 recalled to me the many fruitful exchanges that I have had with primatologists over the years.

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