“The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist”

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Bailey Baumann

Professor Grobstein

Book Commentary


“The Ape and theSushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist”


            Fransde Waal is a famed primatologist, who does not feel that his choice of researchsubjects should limit his interests. de Waal is famous not only for hiscontributions to the field of primate behavioral research, but also for hiscontributions to the world of science, philosophy, psychology, and anthropologyin general. Because of his wide field of interest, de Waal has had theopportunity to travel all over the world and meet people of all differentcultures, and is genuinely in awe of the diversity and complexity of humanculture. But despite his respect for human culture, de Waal does not see thisculture as entirely unique. Instead, he sees culture from a plethora ofdifferent sources some fuzzy, some feathered, and some scaled.

            Throughhis travels, de Waal has also discovered that there is a fundamental humandesire to reserve certain traits that we have acquired as solely our own,culture included. Whenever any publication tries to attribute culture toanother animal population, this publication is more than likely to be seen as ajoke, the same way that a chimpanzee dressed as a fine gentleman will be foundas humorous. Humans don’t have the ability to see culture in other animalpopulations because we have greatly limited our definition of what cultureentails. To most humans, culture means fine wine and beautiful paintings, butthis is not what culture is, at least according to Frans de Waal.

            Fransde Waal decided to step out of his field of study to write “The Ape and theSushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist” because he saw seriousproblems with the way that humans are defining culture. To de Waal, culture issimply “…knowledge, habits, and skills…derived from exposure to and learningfrom others” (31). If we can accept this definition of culture, we can start tolearn more about the way in which both animals and humans learn and pass oncustoms. One point that de Waal made that I found particularly interesting washis theory about why we often refuse to expand our definition of culture.Religion is obviously an integral part of the development of our culture, andit seems that it is one of the contributing factors to human biases. Mostwestern religions tell us that humans are somehow special and distinct, whichleads many populations to oppose any efforts to link humans with our furryneighbors (82).

            Inaddition to discussing the presence of animal cultures, the author alsoprovided a brief timetable of the development of primatology, a topic that isof particular interest to me. Humans have been studying animals for thousandsof years for purposes of hunting and gathering, but the study of primates didnot begin until the mid 1900’s in Japan (116). The general public has alwaysfound primates to be fascinating and so we have made them a part of humanculture. We have refused to give primates their own culture, but have insteadtried to project our own culture onto primates Primates, especiallychimpanzees, have long been seen as comic figures, especially when they aremade to perform human tasks. The obvious truth that some individuals don’t seemto grasp is that primates look foolish doing human activities because they arenot human. Perhaps, suggests de Waal, we enjoy seeing chimpanzees fail at humantasks because we are quite frightened by the similarities that exist betweenhumans and apes (2).

            Japanwas the first country to take the study of primates seriously in part becausethey are not as reluctant to the idea of an animal having a soul, emotions, ora personality. In more westernized countries the development of primatology wasmuch slower and was plagued with problems. One of the biggest debates was overlanguage. Some ‘serious’ scientists found the study of animal behavior to belittered with anthropomorphisms, making the research ‘soft science.’ The authoragrees that it is dangerous to attribute human words to animal behavior, but“…animals aren’t blind players in a game that only humans can understand”(67).  As the author points out, ifwe free ourselves from many of our biases and open our minds to newpossibilities, primatology may show us the beginnings of humanity.

            Afterdocumenting the rough beginnings of primatology, de Waal lays out a carefullyplanned and detail-rich argument for the existence of animal culture. I foundthese arguments to be especially effective because instead of asking ‘why’Frans de Waal always asks ‘why not.’ If we see a similarity between a kangarooand a wallaby we automatically assume that the similarity has arisen because ofthe close relationship of the species. Why then, do we not assume the same whenan ape and a human perform the same behavior? de Waal believes that if acertain behavior is spread through kin groups and the behavior continues toexist after the originator of the behavior has died or left the group, then thebehavior should be considered a custom and the population has a culture (211).

            Provingthat he is both an amazing researcher and an even better storyteller, de Waalcraftily provides several specific examples of animal behavior that he believesare culturally spread, not only in apes but in other animals, such as birds andelephants, as well. There is, of course, the textbook example of the monkeys ofArashiyama, an island in Japan that dip their sweet potatoes into the oceanbefore eating them. This behavior started nearly 50 years ago when the sweetpotatoes that the monkeys were given were spoiled and needed cleaning. Now,half a century later, the sweet potatoes are perfectly clean, but thepopulation still continues to dip the food into the ocean (230). Many opponentsto animal culture claim that animals only perform ritualized behavior when thebehaviors provide immediate positive reinforcement. If this were true, why dothe monkeys of Arashiyama still dip their potatoes into the ocean?

            deWaal also observed culture in the chimpanzees at the Yerkes National PrimateResearch Center, where he works. One day, a chimpanzee named Georgia grabbedher sister’s hand above her head and the pair started to mutually groom eachother’s underarms. This behavior slowly spread within Georgia’s family andeventually the entire cohort, even after Georgia was removed from the group(253). These two behaviors are what de Waal considers customs; they are passedthrough kin groups and persist even after the originator has departed.

            Anothercommon argument made by skeptics is that chimpanzees represent a ‘wild human,’that cannot have a culture. Because many accounts of overly violent,aggressive, and power hungry behavior in chimpanzees are sensationalized, thepublic often sees our furry neighbor as what man would have become if we had noculture. Many believe that if we took away all the ‘culture’ that we see as ourdefining characteristic, there would be no substance left, only primitive,evil, aggressive urges. But, de Waal argues, human nature and human culture arenot separate entities, “…there’s plenty of nature in culture, just as there isplenty of culture in nature (271). It is true that chimpanzees are very focusedon power and their hierarchy, but this does not mean that chimpanzees have noculture. Chimpanzees have a culture because they have characteristics such astheir aggression that are unique to their species.

            Toillustrate the fact that all apes are not simply crazed lunatics with no moralcompass, de Waal recounts his experiences with the bonobos, the gentle apes.Bonobos are a very close relative of both the chimpanzee and humans, but werenot discovered until the 1930’s. Unlike the power hungry chimpanzee or gorilla,the bonobo is a very gentle and peace loving animal, which settles conflictsthrough sex rather than aggression (132). In fact, in the years since theirdiscovery there have been no accounts oflethal territory battles in bonobo populations, a situation that is very commonin other ape species (133). The bonobos, although infinitely fascinating, arestill relatively unknown within the scientific community possibly because theyconflict with the well-implanted belief that apes are savage and brutal (134).If the general population were to acknowledge the existence of ‘gentle’animals, they would have to rethink their view of both human and animalculture.

            AfterFrans de Waal established and supported his view of animal culture, he turns tothe difficult task of explaining how and why culture is passed through apopulation. In the distant past, scientists believed that all animal behaviorwas innate and thus no new information was actually learned or imitated (15).From numerous studies, such as studies on songbirds, scientists have determinedthat most of animal behavior is actually environmental, not biological. If animalbehavior is dependent on the presence of other individuals, how could animalsnot transmit information or “…pick up habit and social skills in many years ofinteraction with their elders?” (214). Animals do learn, although theirlearning process is different from humans. How these learning processesdiverge, is difficult to say. 

            Thefact is, it is impossible to be sure how and why an isolated behavior becomes acustom. Most of the time, a behavior will persist if it somehow benefits apopulation, but this is not always the case. There are hundreds of reports thatdescribe seemingly senseless and worthless animal behavior that has no realcause or consequence. de Waal believes that primate social learning does notcome from the anticipation of rewards but rather a desire to fit in (230).After years of research the author has concluded that apes are very concernedwith acting like each other and are very group oriented. If this is true, abehavior may not need a reward to become a custom, instead de Waal suggeststhat primates learn new behavior through bonding and identification basedobservational learning (BIOL) (231).

            Althoughde Waal does include an impressive amount of detail and examples in the book,he never looses sight of his main purpose, to change the definition of culturebecause “By accepting a broad, inclusive definition we can make the necessaryconnection between human and animal culture without in any way devaluing theformer’s achievements” (238). Because of our own culture, we find it difficultto give up aspects of ourselves that we feel make us unique. But, it is unfairand unwise to curtail our view of culture because of our own selfish desires.Animals can have culture, and by accepting this fact, we can start to learnmore about the way in which information and behavior is spread in both humansand animals.  



Bonobos: The PeacefulApes




Works Cited


1. de Waal, F. (2001). The ape and the sushi master:Cultural reflections of a primatologist.New York, NY: Perseus Books Group. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

culture in non-humans ... and humans

"primate social learning does not come from the anticipation of rewards but rather a desire to fit in"

Which is itself a "reward"?  Sounds pretty human.  I'm persuaded we have something to learn from studies of culture in other organisms.  

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