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Study of primate social behavior brings ASU anthropologist major honor

professor Joan Silk
April 24, 2015

Non-human primates can teach us a lot about ourselves, such as providing insight into how we evolved as a social species.

For Arizona State University anthropologist Joan Silk, baboons – specifically, female baboons – offer significant clues to understanding the form and function of social bonds.

A professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Silk can often be found in Kenya, observing and documenting the behavior of baboons in their natural environment. She is also a research affiliate with the Institute of Human Origins and spends extended periods analyzing data from long-term studies and producing findings that are widely published and cited.

For her contributions to her field, Silk was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her cohort includes such prominent figures as novelist Tom Wolfe, Nobel Prize-winner Brian Kobilka and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The induction ceremony will take place Oct. 10 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The academy represents mathematics, medicine, the arts and humanities, public affairs, the physical and social sciences, business and government. Its membership comprises 4,600 fellows and 600 foreign honorary members whose knowledge and influence shape its publications and research.

An honor earned

Silk is a widely regarded scholar of primate behavioral ecology, evolution and sociality, with noted studies on prosocial preferences among chimpanzees and children to her credit, but in recent years she has become known for baboon research.

Among her major findings is the discovery that females show a clear preference for maternal kin – especially mothers, daughters and sisters – as well as paternal half-sisters, and that their bonds prove invaluable.

“Analyses have shown that females form strong, equitable, supportive, tolerant and durable bonds with particular partners,” Silk explained. “Females that have strong and stable bonds with other females live longer, and their infants are more likely to survive than those of females with weaker, less stable bonds.”

Another important finding is the discovery that female social integration is not influenced by dominance rank or environmental changes.

Silk’s analysis was the first systematic evidence that investment in social relationships results in a fitness payoff – increased reproductive success – for females.