Re: review in SciAm of The Ape and the Sushi Master

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Date: Sat Jun 02 2001 - 00:54:08 BST

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    Subject: Re: review in SciAm of The Ape and the Sushi Master
    Date: Fri, 01 Jun 2001 19:54:08 -0400
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    >From: "Wade T.Smith" <>
    >To: "memetics list" <>
    >Subject: review in SciAm of The Ape and the Sushi Master
    >Date: Wed, 28 Mar 2001 12:48:26 -0500
    >Do Animals Have Culture?
    >Review by Meredith F. Small
    >(An eminent primatologist challenges long-held convictions about what
    >makes humans distinct.)
    >Science, and the tried-and-true scientific method, is supposed to be free
    >of bias. But as primatologist Frans de Waal explains in _The Ape and the
    >Sushi Master_, science, like all human endeavors, is warped by cultural
    >ideology. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the field of animal
    >behavior and particularly in discussions of whether animals have culture.
    >"We cannot discuss animal culture without seriously reflecting on our own
    >culture and the possible blind spots it creates," de Waal writes.
    >He approaches this conundrum by taking us with him on a journey around
    >the world, to watch primates and to talk with other scientists, engaging
    >the reader in a conversation about where our biases come from and how
    >they have influenced the history of animal behavior.
    >De Waal is the director of the Living Links Center for the study of ape
    >and human behavior at Emory University; he has written extensively about
    >his findings in both scientific journals and the popular press. But
    >unlike his previous popular books on chimpanzee politics and
    >reconciliation in primates, this time de Waal is not so much presenting a
    >theory and providing data as stepping back from the entire field of
    >animal behavior to take a broader look.
    >The Ape and the Sushi Master is a philosopher's tale--and one that could
    >have a major impact on the future study of animal behavior. It questions
    >the very way behaviorists go about their work and in the process
    >undermines some comfortably held theories. In the West, for example,
    >behaviorists embrace the idea that individuals act exclusively in
    >self-serving ways in order to pass on their genes. But de Waal, a
    >Dutch-born zoologist who has lived in the U.S. for two decades and has
    >traveled extensively, has enough cultural distance to see that this view
    >is intimately connected to the Western, especially American, ideology of
    >individualism. Natural selection, he points out, can also produce
    >cooperative behaviors, acts of kindness, and gentle creatures. And de
    >Waal has the experience--27 years of observing apes in captivity--to
    >question the accepted notion that only humans learn. The book's title
    >refers to the way sushi-making skills are passed down from master to
    >apprentice: like the apprentice, young apes also watch their elders and
    >imitate their behavior.
    >De Waal begins by laying out the reasons that we Westerners have such an
    >uncomfortable relationship with animals, especially primates. By
    >historical and religious tradition, Europeans and Americans embrace the
    >idea that humans are different from--better than--all other animals,
    >establishing a dualism between us and them. "Whenever their abilities are
    >said to approach ours, the reaction is often furious," de Waal points out.
    >This kind of dualism also means that Western scientists fear
    >anthropomorphism and revere a disconnection from their subjects; we
    >assume one must maintain separation to gather valid data. But de Waal
    >feels that similarities, especially those among closely related species
    >such as apes and humans, are profound and useful. Therefore, he finds
    >that anthropomorphism is "not only inevitable, it is a powerful tool."
    >Eastern cultures fare better in their observations of animals because
    >they don't buy the Western dualism of humans versus animals. "It can
    >hardly be coincidental," de Waal reasons, "that the push for cultural
    >studies on animals initially came ... from primatologists untrained in
    >the sharp dualisms of the West." Long ago the Japanese, for example, were
    >not afraid of topics that Western scientists are just now taking
    >seriously: "Thus, the Japanese did not hesitate to give each animal a
    >name or to assume that each had a different identity and personality.
    >Neither did they feel a need to avoid topics such as animal mental life
    >and culture."
    >The issue of culture, in particular, as de Waal explains, has had a much
    >more rocky history in the West. For decades, anthropologists and others
    >have come up with various traits that separate humans from chimpanzees in
    >an effort to define what is uniquely human. But chimpanzees keep nudging
    >into our territory: tool use, complex social relationships, empathy and
    >sympathy, sophisticated communication--they seem to have bits of it all.
    >And now it seems they have culture, the last bastion of separation.
    >In a recent analysis of seven long-term chimpanzee sites, researchers
    >were able to identify 39 behaviors that were learned from others. If
    >culture can be defined as behavior that is socially transmitted,
    >chimpanzees, and other animals, are cultural beings, de Waal argues.
    >"What is the least common denominator of all things called cultural?" he
    >asks. "In my view, this can only be the nongenetic spreading of habits
    >and information. The rest is nothing else than embellishment." Cultural
    >anthropologists might not like it, but the chimps are playing on our side
    >De Waal ends with a section on how we see ourselves. And we emerge as an
    >unpleasantly self-important species. We pretend that a struggle for
    >social power, which is a common behavior pattern among other primates, is
    >"self-esteem" and therefore that it is found only in humans. We assume
    >that humans are the only ones whose behavior is influenced by learning
    >and experience and that we are the only ones who are altruistic, caring
    >beings--such kindness exhibited by other animals is misguided pathology.
    >De Waal takes a different tack: "Instead of being tied to how we are
    >unlike any animal, human identity should be built around how we are
    >animals that have taken certain capacities a significant step farther. We
    >and other animals are both similar and different, and the former is the
    >only sensible framework within which to flesh out the latter."
    >Sensible, yes, but ideology dies hard. As de Waal so convincingly
    >explains, we would have to navigate an identity crisis on the way to
    >enlightenment, and this might be too scary for those invested in the
    >supremacy of humankind. But for those ready for some self-scrutiny, and a
    >less biased view of culture and learning in our fellow creatures, this
    >book will be a revelation. In a sense, de Waal is our animal-behavior
    >sushi master; look over his shoulder and learn what the animals tell us
    >about ourselves.
    One important part of the book is where de Waal talks a little about the
    Nazi affinities of Lorenz (shudder). Tinbergen comes out looking better.

    de Waal touches on memes somewhere within the book. This part might get me
    back on my contrarian hobby horse (or not).

    Didn't Newt Gingrich suggest one of de Waal's books as reading for U.S.
    Congress freshmen. I wonder where Newt sides on the creation/evolution

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