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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Ape and the Sushi Master

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Now, the Ape and the Sushi Master may sound like the latest Japanimation superhero Saturday morning cartoon adventure. Or, perhaps an animal rendition of zen philosophy. But it's the title of a new book which explores how animals develop their own distinct cultures and even political hierarchies, not all that different from how we humans create ours. Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University, is the author of the book and he joins me now. Dr. de Waal, welcome to Living on Earth.

DE WAAL: Yeah, I'm glad to be here.

CURWOOD: Now you write in your book that animals such as apes develop their own traditions and cultures in much the same way that an apprentice learns from a sushi master. How's that?

DE WAAL: The apprentice hangs around the master, cleans the dishes, bows to clients and does all sorts of tedious work but is not allowed to touch the sushi and only can watch what the sushi master is doing for a couple of years. And after a three year period, they are supposed to make the sushi based on their observations and to do it correctly. And so, it's a transmission of knowledge by observation. And that's what the whole book is really about. The whole book is really about animals and cultures and humans and how that's based on seeing others do something and copying the behavior. And so, for example, in chimpanzees we don't only have sort of single traditions but we also have entire sets of traditions. And as soon as you get an entire set of 39 different patterns that varies across chimpanzee groups, we can start to talk about chimpanzee cultures.

CURWOOD: There must have been some point in your life or in your work with animals that your own perception of what is culture changed. Can you tell me what brought about this change in your thinking?

DE WAAL: I think the first time that I heard people talk about animal culture was in the 60s and it was, at that time, was a very obscure concept. I think in the west we had a hang-up about culture in the sense that culture was introduced to us as something that sets us apart from animals. Whereas, the eastern primatologists introduced it to us as something that connects us to animals, actually. And so, I think for that was a major change in my thinking about it. Once you have the idea that animals can have culture and that you should be looking for the transmission of knowledge and habits, you're going to see it everywhere.

CURWOOD: How would you define culture?

DE WAAL: Well, I define culture as a set of characteristics of a group of animals of a particular species that is different from the characteristics of other groups and they have come about not because you are genetically different but because you have different learning histories. And so, animals copy behavior from each other or learn it otherwise, and so there's social transmission of behavior which means sometimes you find one group of chimpanzees which cracks nuts with stones and another group of chimpanzees which has nuts and has stones in the forest but is not doing anything with them. And so they have not developed a nut-cracking culture, for example.

CURWOOD: Some animals might even be too good at what they do. How's that?

DE WAAL: This relates to the issue of the old tea parties that they use with chimpanzees and other apes in the zoo. They would teach them to sit around a table and to drink tea and to use cutlery and stuff like that. And this impressed people very much. On the other hand, they were also supposed to fail. We were not very happy if they did it perfectly. And there's some good documentation that if you had a group of chimps that were too good at drinking from tea cups, they would teach them very soon to drop the cup or to spill the tea or because we did not allow them to be the perfect imitators of us. We wanted them to be the imperfect ones. Because these tea parties were partly designed to confirm to us the human observer that they could not do really the cultural things that we do. The most amusing case was Congo, the painting ape. In the 1950s, he was a chimpanzee who belonged to Desmond Morris. Desmond Morris sent some of the paintings of Congo to a Parisian gallery who specialized in abstract art, under a different name, not saying that it came from a chimpanzee. And it got rave reviews. It was actually, if you look at these paintings, they are actually quite beautiful . There's a lot of good composition and color composition in the paintings of Congo. And it's only after it came out that it was a chimpanzee that the critics all had reasons why they had believed. And so they sort of justified their mistaken belief that this was a grand master of painting instead of a chimpanzee.

CURWOOD: OK let's turn to politics. You say in your book that politics come into play in the animal world. How's that?

DEWAAL: I have worked on politics in chimpanzees and these studies I started in the 70s where I worked on alliances and coalitions. And a coalition is basically that two individuals defeat a third party. And so, for example, let's say you are the highest ranking male in my group of chimpanzees and I cannot defeat you on my own but I can make a contract so to speak, not a written contract, but I can have a buddy and the two of us can defeat you. And when that happens, then afterwards I have to give my buddy a lot of benefits. Let's say I become the new alpha male, the highest ranking male. I can only do that if my buddy is also happy with the position that he has. And so I have to give certain sexual privileges that I have obtained or other privileges to that partner. So, it's a very complex sort of transactional deal-making that's going on amongst chimpanzees. And when I wrote "Chimpanzee Politics," which is quite a long time ago, ten years later Newt Gingrich recommended it to the Congress. So, at least here we had a politician who sees the connections between their own behavior and chimpanzee behavior. And I've heard from many people that in corporations and in politics you see many of these same patterns of coalition formation, divide and rule strategies, grooming up the hierarchy, grooming the ones who you hope to get benefits from and so on. You see that sort of same mechanism I see in the chimpanzees.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you see a danger in not recognizing animal culture and if you do, how this would affect us?

DE WAAL: I think there would be a great risk to that, in the sense that there is a tendency for people to look at animals as a sort of little machine. And I think the culture issue it opens up a new way of looking at animals that brings animals closer to us, but also confuses the picture in the sense that you cannot anymore say that chimpanzees act like such and such because now you have to say the chimpanzees in Thai forest act like such and such but the chimpanzees in Gomba act like such and such. So, if you show, for example, to field workers videos of chimpanzees they can see from the video where this video was taken. In the same way that you can show me videos of, let's say, Europeans at work and I can tell you whether this was taken in France or in Germany on the basis of the way they dress, the way the talk, the way they act in many ways. And so, that same sort of variability we see in human cultures we see in animal cultures.

CURWOOD: Then what do you think humans might not share with animals? What could separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom?

DE WAAL: You could mention our symbolic languages, which I think is a unique feature of us. But even if you take language, you could probably break it down to a number of characteristics, some of which are not beyond other animals. For example, language involves syntax and use of symbols and classification of objects and concepts involved in that and some of these elements can be found in other animals. But, you know as soon as you start looking closer at everything that you think sets us apart, there's big holes in there. And so we are basically animals. We are cultural creatures by our very nature. We have evolved to be cultural creatures. And all we do with culture is adding some layer of variation to our behavior which is a very interesting layer but is only one of the many that we have.

CURWOOD: Frans de Waal is a professor of primate behavior at Emory University and author of the book "The Ape and the Sushi Master." Professor de Waal, thanks so much for joining me today.

DE WAAL: You're welcome.


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation supporting environmental education, the Educational Foundation of America for reporting on energy and climate change, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues and the environment, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Town Creek Foundation.

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, it's Living on Earth, and this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return, the thirst for fresh water touches many, including source Perrier. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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