Kirsty Gra­ham
November 2018

Kirsty Gra­ham and Cat Hobaiter look at how non-human pri­mates use ges­tures to com­mu­ni­cate: Can human par­tic­i­pants “under­stand” chim­panzee and bonobo gestures?

Kirsty was one of our first Gorilla Grants win­ner. Cat Hobaiter acted as Kirsty’s super­vi­sor dur­ing her research. For this intereesting spot­light we inter­viewed both. Have fun reading!

What did you do using Gorilla?

We study how chim­panzees and bono­bos use ges­tures to com­mu­ni­cate – they use a set of around 70 ges­tures and many of the ges­tures share mean­ings for both species. Chim­panzees and bono­bos are our clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tives, and given that they share so many of their ges­tures, we want­ed to see if humans share them too. We used to test whether human par­tic­i­pants “under­stand” chim­panzee and bonobo gestures.

In each round, par­tic­i­pants watched a clip con­tain­ing a chim­panzee or bonobo ges­ture and were given four options for what they thought the ges­ture means. The “cor­rect” answer is the mean­ing it’s used for in chim­panzees and bonobos.

We’re still analysing our data, but one thing we do know is that it looks like our par­tic­i­pants were above chance – so there’s def­i­nite­ly some­thing that humans under­stand about ape gestures!

What are the main ways peo­ple mis­un­der­stand your thesis?

We found that the major­i­ty of great ape ges­tures seem to be bio­log­i­cal­ly inher­it­ed – that makes them like many other ani­mal sig­nals (includ­ing ours!). It doesn’t mat­ter who you are, all apes have access to the same species-reper­toire of ges­tures, and close­ly relat­ed species share many — some­times almost all — the same ges­tures too.

Some peo­ple inter­pret that as us say­ing ape ges­tures are fixed, or inflex­i­ble – but that’s not the case at all. Just like in human lan­guage, we have a bio­log­i­cal­ly inher­it­ed foun­da­tion, which is incred­i­ble plas­tic through our ontoge­ny. You can take a ‘human-typ­i­cal’ set of avail­able phonemes and end up with lan­guages as diverse as Chi­nese, Swahili, and French. The avail­able ges­tures might be bio­log­i­cal­ly inher­it­ed, but what young apes learn to do with them might turn out to be real­ly flexible.

Has the study been published?

Not yet! We are plan­ning to fin­ish the arti­cle in Octo­ber, then we will sub­mit it and cross our fin­gers (we are ges­ture researchers, after all).

How do you think online research is going to change your field?

Online research can help us to reach demo­graph­ics out­side of the uni­ver­si­ty. So many stud­ies are lim­it­ed to the stu­dents we can recruit from with­in the psy­chol­o­gy depart­ment! Online research allows us to draw from a much larg­er and more rep­re­sen­ta­tive pool of people.

Did you have any issues get­ting ethics for using Gorilla?

Not at all – one of the plus points for us using Gorilla was the flex­i­bil­i­ty to set up our own con­sent forms, and debrief state­ments, and to recruit in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways. For exam­ple we could let under 12-year old par­tic­i­pants play the appli­ca­tion as a ‘game’ with­out col­lect­ing their data.

Why did you choose Gorilla?

The School in St Andrews is a Psy­chol­o­gy school, and they sent round an email about this new tool. Being hon­est I’m not sure it would have caught our eye if it wasn’t called Gorilla! But once we had a play with it we were hooked. We’ve never done any online cit­i­zen sci­ence research and Gorilla made it super easy.

“We recruit­ed almost 15,000 participants!”

For you, what is the stand-out fea­ture in Gorilla?

Oh wow – from our point of view the set up was real­ly intu­itive and cus­tomis­able, and from the participant’s point of view it’s got a very acces­si­ble, com­fort­able inter­face. Through social media, radio, and online arti­cles, we recruit­ed almost 15,000 par­tic­i­pants, and we would never have been able to reach that num­ber with­out the Gorilla plat­form and the team behind it.

What improve­ments would you like to see in Gorilla to make your research easier?

It was real­ly neat start­ing to work with Gorilla as the plat­form was devel­op­ing – there were a cou­ple of occa­sions where we’d ask about a fea­ture that was just com­ing out. One thing that would be real­ly use­ful for out­reach and for tak­ing exper­i­ments to more remote areas would be the abil­i­ty to down­load the exper­i­ment as an app that can be used offline. That way we could have it on touch­screens in muse­ums or zoos as an inter­ac­tive exhib­it. Actu­al­ly, we have heard that this is in the works, so watch this space!

What orig­i­nal­ly inspired you to work in your field of research?

Cat: I came to pri­ma­tol­ogy almost by acci­dent. I start­ed out in Physics, but then took a Psych class early on and came across the idea that evo­lu­tion had shaped not only our bod­ies but also our minds — that had me hooked!

If you could inter­view any researcher (alive or dead), who would it be and why?

Steven J. Gould because we could talk sci­ence and pol­i­tics, and prob­a­bly about the fact that the two are insep­a­ra­ble. And all the delight­ful and goofy sto­ries about dinosaurs and evo­lu­tion, of course.

Are there any online cours­es, pod­casts, dis­cus­sion groups or resources that you’d rec­om­mend to others?

It’s a gener­ic one but get on to Twit­ter – there’s an incred­i­ble sci­ence com­mu­ni­ty on there, and no mat­ter how niche your sub­ject there’s a twit­ter fam­i­ly for you. You don’t have to par­tic­i­pate that much at first, just fol­low­ing your favourite researchers and insti­tu­tions is a great way to keep in the loop on new papers, grants, and jobs. But if you feel like get­ting stuck in it’s also an incred­i­ble resource for con­nect­ing with both other sci­en­tists and non-sci­ence folk.

When you’re not work­ing, what do you enjoy doing?

We swear there are two of us behind this inter­view, but we have so much over­lap it sounds a lot like we’re just one per­son!! When we’re both in the same place we enjoy hik­ing and rock climb­ing, and we’re plot­ting a surf­ing trip for the autumn when Kirsty is back from the field. And of course most of these adven­tures end in a pub, or on top of a moun­tain with Cat’s flask of whisky.

What’s your favourite sci­ence inter­net meme?

The Far Side car­toons by Gary Lar­son are amaz­ing — there are so many good sci­ence ones, and even a cou­ple of ani­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and field pri­ma­tol­ogy ones!


Kirsty Gra­ham
Primatology, Comparative Psychology
Research Associate
University of York
Kirsty Graham

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