2024 NIH Director's Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series: A Proper Study for Mankind: Understanding the Human Condition Through the Lens of Other Primates

May 1, 2024, 2:00pm – 3:00pm EDT
Jenny Tung, Ph.D., Duke University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Virtual and in person on NIH campus, Lipsett Amphitheater (Building 10)
Jenny Tung, Ph.D.


Our experiences in early life and our social connections throughout life strongly predict our health and our lifespans. Work in the last few decades reveals that similar patterns govern the lives of our closest living relatives, the non-human primates. These studies suggest that the social determinants of health in humans have deep evolutionary roots.

During her lecture, Dr. Tung considered our emerging understanding of this process, drawing on her work on both captive rhesus macaques and wild baboons. She reviewed the strong evidence that early adversity, social status, and affiliative ties in adulthood are central to life outcomes, suggesting that observations in humans are not an artifact of the modern human environment.

Dr. Tung discussed possible pathways that connect early life to later life outcomes, including work she has done to connect social interactions with changes in gene regulation “under the skin.”

Finally, she highlighted what we know about buffers against adversity in other primates, including the potential for resilience following adversity.

About Jenny Tung

Dr. Tung is the Director of the Department of Primate Behavior and Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) in Leipzig, Germany, and a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology at Duke University. She joined Duke University in 2012 after completing her post-doctoral training in the University of Chicago Department of Human Genetics and her Ph.D. training in the Duke Biology department. She founded the Department of Primate Behavior and Evolution at MPI-EVA in 2022. Research in the department focuses on the intersection between behavior, social structure, and genes. Dr. Tung’s lab is particularly interested in how the social environment influences gene regulation, population genetic structure, and health and survival across the life course.

About the NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series

The NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series, colloquially known as WALS, is the highest-profile lecture program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Speakers include some of the biggest names in biomedical and behavioral research. The goal of the WALS is to keep NIH researchers abreast of the latest and most important research in the United States and beyond.