April 9, 2001
DeWaal serves up idea of animal culture
By Eric Rangus email@example.com
Yerkes primate researcher and Emory professor Frans DeWaal published his latest book, The Ape and Sushimaster: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist earlier this year. Standing before a packed auditorium in the Dental School building on April 2, DeWaal explained some of its contents in his lecture Do Other Animals Have Culture?
In short, the answer is an emphatic yes.
A culture that is passed down from generation to generation and across
from peer to peer is not the exclusive realm of human beings, DeWaal said
during his conversational hour-long lecture. The animal kingdom, as well,
has its learned culture, and none is more advanced than that of primates.
Animal culture is extremely widespread and if we look for it, we
will find it, DeWaal said.
His whimsically titled book refers to the way sushi-making skills are
passed down fromsushimaster to apprentice. The apprentice learns the trade
while watching the expert. Such is the way skills are handed down in the
primate world, DeWaal contended, backing it up not only with his words,
but also with a slide show and a brief video from a British Broadcasting
Company (BBC) special.
Ape and Sushimaster also is a thinly veiled reference to
the fact that much of the initial research into primate culture took place
Much of the early part of DeWaals lecture dealt with the Koshima
Island monkeys, a colony of primates living on a small island in southern
Japan. In the early 1950s, Japanese scientists journeyed to the island
to study them, and they found that one young monkey named Imo, when given
potatoes, would wash them before eating.
Other monkeys in the colony took up this practice, which continues until
today. It is the only group of monkeys in the world to do it. According
to DeWaal, the behavior of the Koshima monkeys illustrates a 1952 theory
by Japanese scientist Kinji Imanishi, who defined animal culture as socially
transmitted adjustable behavior.
DeWaal spent the rest of his lecture citing examples that outlined how
behavior is learned by primates. While elders and peers teaching others
may be a part of this process, the primary method of learning is imitation.
Apes are wonderful at copying motor patterns, he said. Very
similar to human imitation.
DeWaal also noted that primates will more often imitate a family member
than, say, a scientist.
DeWaal also took time to address other scientists views that animals
do not have culture. Opposing viewpoints, DeWaal said, overestimate the
roles of rewards (animals learn skills to receive treats, for example),
and fixate on processes rather than concentrate on broad ideas.
DeWaal came to four conclusions: social transmission is common in the
animal kingdom; there are intergroup differences among species (DeWaal
said scientists can tell where primate footage was shot based on the actions
of the animals filmed without reference to geography); social transmission
is not reward oriented; and it has survival value.
Regarding the idea of intergroup differences among species, one of DeWaals
slides noted that among seven different primate field sites in Africa,
scientists observed 39 varied patterns of behavior without ecological
or genetic explanation, backing up his contention that different colonies
of primates learned independently, de-emphasizing the importance of instinct.
DeWaals new book has been roundly praised. Washington Post reviewer John Gribbin called it absorbing and entertaining.
And naturalist E.O. Wilson, who delivered a Reconciliation Symposium
keynote speech in January, had this to say: After reading this very
lucid and entertaining account by the world authority on primate social
behavior, it will be impossible to ever again see the antics
of monkeys and apes as pure simple instinct, or to think of the human
species as risen above the biosphere.
DeWaals appearance wrapped up a four-lecture series co-sponsored
by the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, the Atlanta Chapter for the
Society of Neuroscience and Georgia State University. The series celebrated
March as Brain Awareness Month.
DeWaal, who is Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the psychology
department, joked about his lack of a background in brain research.
Now, I am not a neurologist, he said. But everything I talk about happens in the brain.