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April 9, 2001

DeWaal serves up idea of animal culture

By Eric Rangus


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 in Japan.

Much of the early part of DeWaal’s 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 DeWaal’s 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.

DeWaal’s 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.”

DeWaal’s 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.”


Back to Emory Report April 9, 2001