Megan Beney


  • BA, Anthropology, Knox College, 2013


In social species, how do the older members of a group shape the development of the younger members?  Researchers have addressed this question many times from many different perspectives - from sexual development to food acquisition techniques to social politics - but I would like to bring this line of inquiry down to its fundamental core.  In other words, when does this learning begin and how?  In social species, especially in mammals, the first interaction an infant has is with its mother through the meeting of its basic needs for food (nursing), protection, and shelter.  Because of this, researchers such as Dean Falk (2009) have reason to suspect that mother-infant interactions are an important window into the development of a species' behavioral ecology.  My specific research interests involve the evolution of communicative behavior in social species, most especially in species with complex communication systems, such as the great apes, dolphins, elephants, birds, and - of course - humans.  Do mothers and other caregivers interact with infants in a way that is unique from less communicative species?  If so, does this behavior apply towards more complex communication systems, and does it contribute to the evolution of systematized forms of sound communication (music and language) and gestural communication (sign language) that have helped to shape and define what it is to be human?

Interspecies research may be helpful in answering some of these questions.  To elaborate, are the differences in mother/caregiver-infant interactions across species part of what determines a species' aptitude at conveying discrete information between individuals?  In my graduate research, I would like to compare the types and the volume of information transmitted from mother to child and between mother and child for two highly communicative species, as this comparison may provide insight into the degree to which mother-infant interactions shape a species' communicative capacity.