Academic Minute Podcast

Best-Of 2023 Week: Robin Morrison, University of Zurich – Overcoming Adversity

Resiliency is a great skill to master.

Robin Morrison, senior researcher at the University of Zurich and affiliate scientist at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, determines how gorillas foster this.

Robin Morrison is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Zurich and an Affiliate Scientist at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda. She uses long-term data from wild gorillas to examine the evolution of complex social behaviors and life history patterns.

Overcoming Adversity

A difficult start in life is often associated with significant problems later on. Early life adversity can take a wide variety of forms, including malnutrition, war and abuse; and people who experience these kinds of traumas, are more likely to suffer a range of health problems in adulthood and to have shorter lives.

But these patterns aren’t unique to humans. Similar effects have been seen across the animal kingdom from fish to birds to elephants. For example, female baboons who have the hardest childhoods have life spans that are half as long as those that had it easiest. But one species seems to break this pattern, and its one of our closest evolutionary relatives – the gorilla.

We used detailed information on the lives of more than 250 wild gorillas, collected over the last 55 years, to examine the link between their early life experiences and later life survival. In contrast to other species, in gorillas, adverse conditions in early life did not have negative effects on their survival in later life. In fact, gorillas that experienced the most adversity early in their lives were actually living the longest.

This unusual finding suggests that studying gorillas could provide clues into how we too might build resiliency to the long-term effects of childhood adversity. Two aspects of these gorillas’ daily lives stand out as potential sources for their resiliency: their food-rich habitat and their cohesive social groups. Having a consistent and plentiful supply of food and a supportive social network may help a young gorilla push through the challenges they face.

This possibility suggests that in humans, evading the negative long-term consequences of early trauma may require children to be supported in multiple ways both socially and economically.

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