Can capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees teach us about the way human beings react with one another? What we learn about cooperation, reciprocity, inequity, and other economic decisions — even morality — from nonhuman primates?

Sarah Brosnan

Dr. Sarah Brosnan, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Comparative Economics and Behavioral Studies Laboratory at Georgia State University, will address such questions and more during a public lecture at Mary Baldwin University on March 17, “The Power of Equal Pay: How Non-Human Primates React to Inequity.” The lecture is sponsored by Quest; Mary Baldwin’s Global Honors Program; and the departments of Biology, Philosophy, Psychology, and Women’s Studies.

Brosnan studies primate cooperation in economic scenarios, including the evolution of responses to inequity and bartering among high-order primates. The subject ties in with themes explored in Philosophy/Psychology 306 with Professor of Psychology Louise Freeman and Professor of Philosophy Roderic Owen. In the honors-level Morality course, students focus on what it means to understand human morality by merging research in evolutionary psychology, neurosciences, and social sciences.

Booking Brosnan is a win for both Mary Baldwin and the community beyond campus. With the visit, the college is able to showcase the talents of a leading female scientist and provide insight into a relatively new field. For the past 20 years, investigating evolutionary origins of morality has captured the interest of academics and non-academics alike.

capuchin monkey

“[In recent years] we have gained so many interesting insights into species other than our own,” Owen said. “Many students are interested in animal intelligence. And whether or not they are in the academic community, people are interested in how and where we distinguish animal intelligence from human intelligence.”

Brosnan brings with her the experience of working closely with Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading primatologists, known for establishing a dialogue with researchers in cognitive science, neuroscience, anthropology, and more. Such cross-disciplinary engagement is an approach embraced not only by Mary Baldwin’s Honors program, but the college as a whole.

Also weaved into the title and content of Brosnan’s lecture is the concept of Power, the college-wide theme of 2010–11.

“Intelligence and the ability to use intelligence is powerful,” Owen posited, adding that it is “almost irresistible” to wonder how Homo sapiens used the power of adaptation, language, and symbols to evolve, gain control, and adapt to their environment.

Brosnan’s visit will also include a more intimate talk with Global Honors Scholars and faculty earlier in the day. The public lecture, which is free, begins at 7 p.m. in Miller Chapel.