From New Scientist magazine, vol 172 issue 2321, 15/12/2001, page 46
© Copyright New Scientist, RBI Limited 2001
New Scientist - 15 Dec 2001
Frans de Waal
Culture seeps into science unbidden. But there needs to be a healthy mix, warns Frans de Waal. The study of nature should not be dominated by a single clique who all share the same way of thinking
LAST summer, I stood by while my adoptive nation turned into a bunch of navel-gazers. The world might still need America, but America decided it didn’t need the world any more. Its new President thumbed his nose at international agreements, and the media wasted an extraordinary amount of airtime and ink on yet another philandering politician. Meanwhile CNN’s Headline News, once a champion of international coverage, proceeded to squeeze the rest of the world into what it announced each day as the “Global Minute”. More airtime was devoted to a few sharks off the Florida coast than to, say, Argentina’s looming financial crisis.
Now, of course, the country has turned 180 degrees. Since the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, international news is back, and the President is on the telephone every day with world leaders. Events have confirmed that even the mightiest nation cannot go it alone in a world in which it makes up only about 4 per cent of the total population. The self-absorption is over, at least for the moment, and every day Americans are learning about a part of the world that most of them barely knew existed.
I’m not criticising America’s superpower status, which I consider relatively benign compared with the ruthless ways in which other nations in the not-too-distant past have ruled or tried to rule the Earth. No, I am recalling these events to cast some light on the illusions that stem from economic, military and cultural hegemony. Victory for one’s own perspective is often taken to mean that there aren’t any other viable viewpoints around. If this is true for world politics, it is also true for science.
Let me explore this issue in the context of my own tiny corner of science, which is the behaviour of monkeys and apes. Inasmuch as the way we look at other animals reflects the way we look at ourselves, the study of animal behaviour is subject to far greater cultural biases than fields such as chemistry or physics.
For example, one can look at organisms as cooperative ventures-both on the inside, among cells within the body, for example, and on the outside, as when animals cooperate to survive. But one could equally well stress cut-throat competition and so-called “selfish” genes. It’s easy to support either position, but in the West we love to depict nature as red in tooth and claw. A few years ago, this led to a clash with a culture that preferred the cooperative model.
The founder of Japanese primatology, Kinji Imanishi, saw nature as inherently harmonious. Species fit together in an ecological whole, adjusting to each other, each finding its own niche. This rather un-Darwinian view so upset a British palaeontologist, the late Beverly Halstead, that he felt Imanishi needed to be set straight.
In 1984, armed with a heavy load of prejudice and unhindered by first-hand knowledge of his adversary (Imanishi’s works had been published only in Japanese), Halstead travelled all the way to Kyoto to confront him. After handing the 82-year-old emeritus professor a gift-a bottle of whisky-he presented him with a document translated into Japanese containing statements such as “Imanishi’s evolution theory is Japanese in its unreality” and “You see the wood, but the trees are not in focus”. No wonder that Imanishi’s face, as Halstead recalled, betrayed profound regret at having agreed to the meeting.
What could have possibly compelled Halstead to be so rude? Why, upon returning to Britain, did he write an article that trashed not just Imanishi’s views, but his country as well? How did Nature dare run it, in 1985, with this patronising introduction: “The popularity of Kinji Imanishi’s writings in Japan gives an interesting insight into Japanese society”? Couldn’t the same subtitle be applied to, say, Darwin’s theory? As has been pointed out many times, it can hardly be coincidental that ideas about free-market capitalism and the struggle for life arose at the same time in the same place. This may explain how we got into the habit of framing evolutionary questions in terms of costs and benefits.
What we have here, then, is the familiar case of one culture perceiving another’s biases more acutely than its own. Even if Imanishi’s ecological and evolutionary ideas were problematic, he and his followers were right about quite a few other things. This is clear from the fundamental change that has taken place in the study of animal behaviour over the past few decades: Western scientists have extensively adopted Eastern concepts and approaches, although often they have made them their own without being aware of their sources.
To understand how this “alien invasion” of ideas could have taken place under our noses, we need to look at Eastern culture, and also appreciate how linguistic monopoly can affect science.
Plato’s “great chain of being”, which places humans above all other animals, is absent from Eastern philosophy. In most Eastern belief systems, the human soul can reincarnate in many shapes and forms, so all living things are spiritually connected. A man can become a fish and a fish can become God. The fact that primates, our closest animal relatives, are native to many Eastern countries, has only helped to strengthen this belief in the interconnectedness of life. Unlike European fables, which are populated with ravens, rabbits, foxes and the like, Eastern folk tales and poetry are laced with references to gibbons and monkeys. The three wise men, or magi, of the Bible are matched in the East by the three wise macaques of Tendai Buddhism (of “See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil” fame).
Feeling humility towards animals affects the way we study them. If we believe the soul can move from monkey to human and back, there are no grounds for resisting the idea that we are historically connected. So it’s hardly surprising that evolution was never controversial in the East: it was a logical and welcome thought. According to Imanishi’s most respected student, the late Jun’ichiro Itani, “Japanese culture does not emphasise the difference between people and animals and so is relatively free from the spell of anti-anthropomorphism”.
As a result, the study of animal behaviour in Japan has never been contaminated by feelings of superiority or an aversion to acknowledging human-like characteristics in animals. For example, Japanese animal behaviourists did not hesitate to give each individual animal a name, and assumed that each had a distinct personality. They plotted kinship relationships over multiple generations, assuming that animals must have a complex family life, just like us. They did all of this well before any Western scientists thought of it, and well before Bill Hamilton developed kin selection theory in the 1960s.
In 1958, Imanishi and his students toured American universities to report their findings. They encountered a great deal of ridicule for humanising their subjects, and profound scepticism about the ability of mere humans to distinguish between all those monkeys. People found it hard to believe such a thing was even possible. However, the greatest American primatologist of the day, Ray Carpenter, became a staunch supporter of Japanese primatology. He visited Japan three times, and within a decade the practice of identifying primates individually had been adopted at Western primatological field sites from Gombe Stream to Cayo Santiago.
In another little-known but telling example, Western and Eastern scientists held contrasting expectations about our closest animal relatives, the great apes. Until well into the 1960s, the Western view was positively Rousseauian: apes were autonomous “noble savages”, free of social ties and obligations. All they did was travel in haphazard combinations from one fruit tree to the next. The ever-changing parties of chimpanzees that researchers were encountering in the forests of Africa seemed to confirm that they lacked a coherent group life.
While Jane Goodall was describing female chimpanzees and their dependent offspring as the only bonded units, a Japanese team working a mere 130 kilometres south of her site was working under quite different assumptions. How could a species that supposedly fills the gap between ourselves and other animals have no complex social life, they pondered. Eventually, through persistent field observations, they cracked the puzzle and showed that chimpanzees live in large communities with a stable membership.
The male-bonded society of the chimpanzee is now taken for granted-there is ample evidence for territorial warfare between different communities. But the initial discovery came out of a firm conviction that chimpanzees could not be nearly as “individualistic” as Western science had made them out to be.
Imanishi’s influence is pervasive now even in the West. The technique of following individuals over time has been adopted by all scientists working with long-lived animals, and animal “culture” has emerged as about the hottest topic in our field.
As far back as 1952, when early European ethologists were working on instinct theories, Imanishi wrote a little book that criticised the view of animals as mindless automatons. He inserted an imaginary debate between a wasp, a monkey, an evolutionist and a layman, in which the possibility was raised that animals other than ourselves might have culture. The proposed definition was simple: if individuals learn from one another, their behaviour may, over time, become different from that in other groups, thus creating a characteristic culture.
Lessons from life
This approach brought culture down to its lowest common denominator: the social rather than genetic transmission of behaviour. It was confirmed within a few years of the book’s publication, from observations of Japanese macaques washing sweet potatoes on Koshima Island. We now know that cultural learning is widespread, and includes birdsong, the use of tools by chimpanzees, and the hunting techniques of whales. New examples are uncovered almost daily.
Yet it’s only a few decades since professors in the West used to warn primatology students against the atheoretical approach, the anthropomorphism and the general lack of relevance of papers by Japanese colleagues. Some even forbade reference to this literature. The fact that there has been such a complete turnaround since then raises two important questions. How could a field of science be shaped so profoundly by one culture’s outlook, especially given the condescending way in which the Japanese perspective was initially treated? And how could this happen with so few people realising it?
The answer to the first question is that, as we’ve seen, Eastern science had no affection for traditional Western human/animal and nature/culture dualisms. The advantages of ignoring these dualisms were immediately obvious to open-minded scientists such as Carpenter, who helped speed up a process that might have occurred anyway.
The answer to the second question lies in language. It is hard for non-English speakers to make themselves heard in an English-speaking world.
Since English is not my native tongue, I am familiar with the effort involved in writing and speaking another language-even though my native Dutch is probably the closest another language can come to English. Scientists from other places have to make ten times the effort I had to. Now, a single language for international papers and conferences is far preferable, in my mind, to a number of competing languages. English itself is not the problem: the problem is the attitude of native English speakers.
Naturally, you speak your own language faster than any other. This can make it impossible for those who are not native English speakers to keep up at international meetings. It is worse on those occasions when an English speaker doesn’t pull any punches while debating with a scientist whose English is poor.
I have seen it happen often. The English speaker rises from the audience, articulates a penetrating question, sometimes with a joke mixed in, and barely takes the time to listen to the clumsily phrased reply of his opponent. Since English speakers dominate all discussions, they form a class of great minds strutting around in the secure knowledge that no one will dare challenge them.
Good ideas formulated in bad English either die or get repackaged. It is a bit like a Hollywood interpretation of a French play: its origins are immediately erased. One reason Eastern thinking could creep into ethology unnoticed is that it filtered into the literature through awkward formulations and translations that native English speakers found it easy to improve on. They then proceeded to claim part of the credit for the new approach. So even though Imanishi put us on the track of animal culture, his name is even now rarely, if ever, mentioned.
In a way, it is delightful to see how views that are clearly at odds with traditional Western dualisms could slip into our thinking in this way. It helped us chuck out some of our cultural baggage. At the same time, however, the way it happened hints at the difficulties other cultural and linguistic groups experience when they try to find a voice in science and gain proper acknowledgement.
We should not be deceived by the West’s scientific hegemony: it is as unrealistic as that of one country thinking it can order the rest of the world around. The study of nature cannot be left to a single priesthood who all think the same. Each culture is too wrapped up in its own relation with nature to step back and see it as it is. To gain a full picture requires all kinds of scientists, who together take on a task equivalent to comparing the images in a range of fun-house mirrors. Somewhere in that heavily distorted information resides the truth.
Frans de Waal is C. H. Candler professor of psychology and director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, Atlanta. The influence of Imanishi and other reflections on traditional dualisms in Western science are discussed in his latest book, The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural reflections by a primatologist (Penguin, 2001), published in paperback this month.