Wanna be like you-oo-oo

June 29, 2001

Mandy Garner meets primatologist Frans de Waal, who believes human and ape culture is learnt through copying peers.

Tea at The Ritz is perhaps the perfect setting to discuss the meaning of culture. Amid the cucumber sandwiches, the golden statuettes, the strains of the grand piano and the general air of stiff upperlippedness (and that is just the waiters), Frans de Waal chats about the origins of human culture.

Dubbed the world's leading primatologist by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, he looks uncomfortable, having been forced into a tie and jacket as part of some bizarre English upper-class ritual. De Waal, professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, failed his finals 25 years ago for not wearing a tie and has not worn one since. "This is the first and last time a journalist sees me in a tie," he says through gritted teeth.

He is in England - his first visit for decades - to talk about his new book, The Ape and the Sushi Master , about which he has just been baited by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week . Paxman took de Waal to task over his broad definition of culture, suggesting he was bending it to mean whatever suited his purposes.

De Waal says that many people, particularly educational psychologists, may not agree with his definition of culture - a habit that we adopt under the influence of another - but he insists that it is possible that a lot of human cultural transmission takes place as a result of watching and repeating actions and refining skills.

"Why, for instance, do Italians make a lot of gestures and British people do not? Why is taste in food different in some countries? It is because of exposure. Similarly, a lot of learning that takes place in primates is due to exposure and watching and seeing instead of active instruction," he says. One example he gives is chimp mothers who show their young how to use stones to crack nuts.

He believes educational psychologists define culture too narrowly, as something that can be learnt through individual instruction, while anthropologists are confused about its meaning. "Since post-modernism they barely know what culture is. They used to know. They used to have strong opinions. Now they have 250 or more definitions." Evolutionary psychologists might also have it wrong. "I would say to the social scientists that we are much more biological creatures than they think and to the evolutionary psychologists that we are much more cultural creatures than they think."

Part of the problem, de Waal says, is the media's zeal for simple answers to complicated issues. For example, it is much easier to say that there is a mothering gene than to explain that 40 per cent of some form of maternal behaviour may be genetic while the rest is cultural.

In his book, de Waal looks at how primates acquire knowledge and habits from others, usually the older generation. In one laboratory in Utrecht, de Waal noticed that a scientist used to catch monkeys in his net. The other monkeys soon learnt about this practice and whenever the man appeared they set off an alarm call. Years later, when the scientist was no longer doing the same research, the younger monkeys who did not know about the net catching still gave the alarm call whenever he was near. "They must have deduced from the reaction of their elders that he was not to be trusted," de Waal writes.

Other customs such as food preferences and aversions may also be the result of learning from others - the Koshima monkeys in Japan, for example, season their sweet potatoes in salt water despite there being no need to clean their food.

Moreover, de Waal says, different primates develop very different cultures. For instance, bonobos in San Diego Zoo have incorporated clapping into their grooming activity. De Waal does not know of any other bonobo groups that do this.

He believes that captivity has a big effect on primate culture and shows how flexible it is. For instance, chimp females have more power in captivity because they group together and form strong bonds. In the wild, however, they are more dispersed, which makes them more vulnerable to attack by males. Another example of cultural diversity that de Waal cites in his book is the radically different temperaments of chimps and bonobos. Bonobos are sociable and pacific while chimps are more aggressive and independent-minded. The implications for humans of this cultural diversity are enormous since it offers an alternative perspective on what we call "human nature" and on arguments such as whether humans are fundamentally aggressive or selfish.

But de Waal does not just stick to learnt actions. In his book he also discusses how animals have an appreciation of music, shape and form and how this may be the roots of human appreciation of the arts, although we have developed it to a more sophisticated level.

He argues passionately that the European tradition of separating nature and culture is based on a false premise. "Thinking of nature and culture as distinct and separate domains is tricky," he says. "There is plenty of nature in culture, just as there is plenty of culture in nature." De Waal says this tendency to separate the two is particularly characteristic of western traditions. The Japanese, who inspired his book and its title - which is based on the apprentices who learn to be sushi masters more or less by observation - have been much less closed to the idea of apes having culture.

This more open attitude began with the work of Kinji Imanishi, one of Japan's leading scientists, some 50 years ago. De Waal says that it reached the West only about 20 years ago and "it has only been in the past ten years that scientists have been seriously talking about it". He thinks this is partly because Japanese people have not been as isolated from primates as westerners, but mainly due to the fact that the West has so much investment in the idea of culture being what sets humans apart from animals and philosophical/religious debates about the so-called dichotomy between body and mind.

"Levi-Strauss was the pinnacle of this attitude that we have moved on from the biological to the cultural domain and left nature behind. It is a strange idea that we can leave our nature behind, as if we could leave our brains behind," he says.

Again, de Waal takes the opportunity to criticise social scientists, saying that they see themselves as solely involved in the human domain. He is confident they will have to adapt, given the emerging evidence from neuroscience that shows the body-mind divide is false and the way science is "transforming society". He even argues that the social sciences could eventually become a "branch of biology".

De Waal is now concentrating his research on primate cooperation and empathy, and has just attended a big conference on primate emotions. He says emotion has been a bit of a taboo area for science. "It is seen as slippery, but this view is changing due to neuroscience." He believes humans have some emotions that animals do not share such as guilt and shame, but there is strong evidence for the existence of others, including fear and joy.

Another related interest is reconciliation and de Waal often finds himself observing humans in fight situations to see how their behaviour may be related to what he notices in his research. In primates, he says, attempts at reconciliation are linked to the value placed on a relationship and on group life, but this can be changed by example. In one experiment, rhesus monkeys, which tend to be fairly aggressive, were introduced to a group of passive, stumptail monkeys. After five months the rhesus monkeys were just as likely to be involved in reconciliations as the stumptail monkeys. "This shows the power of social exposure," de Waal says. Of course, this can also work negatively.

One area where this kind of primate research could have a big impact on human behaviour is in peace-making, with which de Waal has some involvement. He attended a seminar on teaching children peace-making skills recently, which emphasised how they should be talked to if they get into a fight. "No one discussed what they might see around them," he says. "If people are fighting you can give them a lecture, but the power of example is far greater than teaching."

The Ape and the Sushi Master is published by Penguin, price £16.99.

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