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The Ape and the Sushi MasterReview - The Ape and the Sushi Master
Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist
by Frans De Waal
Basic Books, 2001
Review by Anthony Dickinson, Ph.D.
Aug 5th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 32)

Writing with a broad, non-academic audience in mind, The Ape and the Sushi Master provides an enjoyable and informative exploration of our human cultural biases. With respect to the more commonly reflexive leanings towards anthropomorphism when reflecting upon non-human animal behavior, De Waal repeatedly reminds us of its extents, rather than constraints throughout this volume. Thematic throughout the chapters is the view that little is to be gained from the rather naively claimed evolutionary dichotomy of 'culture vs. nature' (as has always been the case for the equally problematic and inane 'nature vs. nurture' debate in my view). Whether reading this book will help prevent arguments continuing in the struggle for one side against the other, De Waal clearly states the circularity of these positions, including the (non-obvious to many) fact that they do not necessarily provide opposing views. Even for the more academic reader, this point is made in a way many students of animal behavior (and indeed, perhaps, some of their professors) might benefit from reading. I would strongly recommend this general reading book if only for that reason.

The prevailing view recurrent throughout the chapters is that culture is a part of human nature (hence the circularity of the false dichotomy), and, in the mold of Lorenz, or the more popular writer Desmond Morris, De Waal does not dismiss the continuity between human and non-human animal behavior. With regards any specific human cognitive developments, however, the evolutionary antecedents of such in the comparative literature are dealt with at a purely anecdotal level in this book (though a welcome set of notes and references provide some direction for those interested to check out some primary sources).

Of interest perhaps to those wanting to better understand human sexual behavior (and its variations), De Waal includes an informative chapter concerning the bonobo chimpanzee "kamasutra primates". These are presented as a highly sociosexual species for reasons other than providing solely a male territorial imperative. Distinct from his earlier 'Chimpanzee Politics', De Waal's commentary here is consistent with his more recent ideas concerning reconciliation behavior and social bonding via mutual sex in both single and mixed pairs/groups of apes. Citing the prudishness of (especially American) humans in preventing this story being more widely known (and well told in this volume, Ch.3), this bonobo chimpanzee behavior is put forward as the most likely contender for mis-anthropomorphism since that of their chimpanzee cousin Pan troglodities' following discussions provoked by Darwin's Origin of Species.

The rather puzzling reference to sushi in the title can be explained by the inclusion of two interwoven themes appearing throughout the volume. The first is De Waal's championing the contribution of the pioneering work of Japanese primatologists in semi-naturalistic ape colonization studies (e.g., the longitudinal studies which claimed the cultural transmission of potato washing). The second is reference to the strict training regime of the Japanese Sushi chef, who undergoes upwards of three years of observational learning from a sushi Master Chef (human cultural transmission of fish dressing) prior to their exercising any of the skills required. Both these sets of findings (the former especially enjoyable to read from this book) bear upon another pair of terms of contention, "learning and instinct", but less is explicitly made of this old bone here than demands comment in review. Perhaps a comment should be made here, however, with regards De Waal's claim for the existence of non-food related contingency rewards in Ch. 6. Although the evidence remains in a sense anecdotal, and without denying behaviors as being otherwise goal-directed, De Waal suggests that social learning is 'socially motivated'. The claim here is that 'social orientation feeds mimicry', and for reinforcement (reward contingency), the rewards are thus simply those of social conformism (and the benefits such acceptance and 'fitting in' can provide). Perhaps an extension of 'chimpanzee politics' after all ?

Although I really liked De Waal's discussions of (actually attacks upon) naive cultural anthropomorphism, I look forward to seeing whether his term to describe the converse condition of being in 'anthropodenial' gains currency in the future. De Waal does make the occasional unwarranted claim himself, however, concerning the mentation and attributions of his non-human animal subjects. For example, we read that "[animals]... have only a vague understanding of what others are doing" (p.19) and, "We [humans] are the only animals with the concept of paternity as a basis for fatherhood" (p.73). The dangers of pursuing the types of research questions being addressed here and the need for a more empirical approach to their study are clearly evident in the production of these kinds of statements. But that is not to say that it cannot be achieved. An understanding of group dynamics should always consider the dynamics of its individual constituents, and it will always be important for us to distinguish between what a given animal does, from what it might be capable of thinking and knowing. In this sense, the apprentice sushi chef should certainly know a lot more than our observation of his overt behavior might lead us to believe.

© 2001 A. R. Dickinson.

Dr. A. R. Dickinson, Dept. of Anatomy & Neurobiology, Washington University School of Medicine


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