Evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare gives you the sense that if anyone is going to discover what it is that makes humans different, it will be this guy. He easily draws you into a thought-provoking conversation about how humans think, process emotions, and engage in problem-solving and reasoning.
His research compares the behavior and thinking of humans to other primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos (our closest relatives) and to non-primates such as dogs. He aims to tease out how we're different from other animals, but also how we are the same -- because that sameness gives us insight into how and why humans evolved.
The work can be great fun, he says. "When a philosopher or scientist puts up an explanation that such and such behavior is what makes us human, we devise ways to see if animals also exhibit that behavior," he explains. "So far, we are often able to say: Nope, animals can do it too!"
"Many of the psychological tests we use to understand cognitive ability in animals are essentially games. And we also play the games with humans of all ages," he says. "It was great fun in a recent alumni event. People loved it and could really understand what we were trying to do."
That's important to Hare because he wants to help change the dialogue around the theory of evolution. A Southerner from Atlanta, Hare is aware of the confusion and fear surrounding evolutionary theory and hopes that his work will help defuse such tensions enough that people can have productive conversation.
His orientation to explaining evolution is purposefully gentle and non-antagonistic. It is a thoughtful contrast to the approach taken by Richard Dawkins, who is famous for his gene-centered explanation of evolution published in the 1976 book "The Selfish Gene," and a profoundly harsh criticism of those who disagree with Darwin in a 2006 book titled "The God Delusion."
"I am trying to help people look at evolution through examples they can readily identify with," explains Hare. "So I focus a lot on domestication -- and dogs in particular. This helps people to relax and listen to ideas and ultimately to think about things differently."
He's passionate about helping people understand human cognition, which he describes as the combination of inference and reasoning. "Humans have the ability to think about a new problem they haven't faced before, imagine various solutions, and figure things out without too much trial and error," he said.
Hare's research group, which includes his wife, research scientist and author Vanessa Woods, does public outreach in local schools, with the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, and through an annual event hosted by the Department of Anthropology called Primate Palooza.
"I am really most proud of the relationships we have with local schools and in developing curriculum for undergrads that helps us teach what a primate is," Hare says. "It has always puzzled me why psychology is not part of kids' curriculum because it is so accessible and kids are so interested. Why not teach animal and human cognition? It's a great way to engage kids in science."
To study dogs, he has developed a network of Research Triangle dog owners who are happy to bring their dogs to Duke's campus to play games. Read more about the Duke Canine Cognition Center.
"Brian lives and breathes his science," said Anne Pusey, James B. Duke Professor of evolutionary anthropology and chair of the department. "His enormous energy and enthusiasm is infectious and draws in not only undergraduates but the wider public. He fosters collaborative projects across and beyond the university and brings increased attention to the field of evolutionary anthropology."
Hare's comparative research with animals also involves him in species conservation. He is part of a growing number of researchers who study animals in the natural environment or as visitors to a home-like conservation center. Read more about his Hominoid Psychology Research Group.
"The old model of primate research was that we worked with animals in cages. I work with 300 great apes, 300 lemurs and 1,000 dogs," said Hare. "And I have no animals in a cage. Not a single one."
Hare does his field work on chimpanzees and bonobos at primate sanctuaries in the African Congo and Uganda.
The primate sanctuaries are crucial to the survival of the animals in Africa because human development and the bush meat trade are decimating populations there. "The sanctuaries are essentially orphanages for young chimps or bonobos whose families have been slaughtered for meat," Hare says. "Our research monies help keep the sanctuaries operating, and we also help when we are in-country by doing educational outreach and lectures."
"The games we play with the chimps and bonobos are also a form of enrichment -- it's exciting engagement for them and helps us to explore what makes humans different from them and why we became so different," he said.
Hare has become an advocate for primates, touting the benefits of studying wild populations and supporting sanctuaries and urging U.S. lawmakers to pass a Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (S. 810 H.R 1513), that mandates a non-lab research model of studying apes in the wild and in sanctuaries. See his commentary on The Hill Congressional Blog.
Whether searching for the quintessential spark that makes us human, saving threatened species or shaping young minds to be excited about science, Hare thrives on challenges that require a long-term investment of effort and passion. Networking, outreach and service are an integral part of his life, as are good conversations.