(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The eminent primatologist Frans de Waal has dedicated his life to the study of social reciprocity and conflict-resolution among apes, as well as the origins of morality and justice in human society. His books rank among the best of popularized science; his prose is polished, chatty, and often autobiographical. He was born October 29, 1948, in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, and became fascinated with animal behavior as a small child. This fascination led him to study zoology and ethology at the University of Utrecht, where he earned a Ph.D. in biology in 1977. He traveled widely, and moved to the United States in 1981; in 1982, his ground-breaking bookChimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes described his study of the daily life of a chimpanzee colony at the zoo in Arnhem, Holland. In that work, de Waal showed that, with their sexual and political rivalries and intrigues, primates are capable of experiencing emotions and intentions once thought to reside solely in the province of humankind.

In The Ape and the Sushi Master, de Waal brings his expertise in primatology to a fascinating and far-ranging consideration of a variety of topics, from human goodness to Eastern philosophy, from aesthetics to cultural biases. In a riveting prologue, “The Apes’ Tea Party,” de Waal establishes his biological and philosophical position by challenging the self-definition of humans as the species which possesses culture, and the widespread assumption that culture has permitted humans to break away from nature.

This book explores the possibility that animals have culture. De Waal carefully explains that, among scientists, “culture” does not mean the use of cutlery or attendance at symphonies; it means, rather, that knowledge and habits are acquired from others, which explains why two groups of the same species may behave differently. He defends this work on two grounds. First, growing evidence for animal culture, “most of it hidden in field notes and technical reports,” deserves to be more widely known. Secondly, his book “allows us to carry one more outdated Western dualism to its grave: the notion that human culture is the opposite of human nature.” The Darwinian natural selection that produced the human species also produced human cultural abilities, so that culture must have had simple beginnings; culture is part of human nature. Likewise, natural selection has produced culture in humans’ closest relatives, the greater apes.

In his prologue, de Waal lays the foundation for the three themes of this book: how humans see other animals, how humans see themselves, and the nature of culture. The conversational and digressive style of The Ape and the Sushi Master, which includes sixteen pages of black-and-white photographs, allows him to move freely from one topic to another. He emphasizes that he has not striven for completeness—one might say, to provide a pyramid of proofs that will unify behaviorists and ethologists at its peak—yet de Waal succeeds in laying such a strong foundation that only stubbornness will prevent readers and researchers alike from climbing and seeing that conclusion with him. At the same time, with a winningly persuasive tone to support the results of his and others’ studies, de Waal bridges the gap that divides those biologists who preach nature as the prime mover of human and zoological behavior and those who insist on nurture, or culture.

The second part of de Waal’s title refers to the way in which imitation occurs, “imitation” meaning the solving of a problem by copying another’s actions with an understanding of both the problem and the other’s intentions. De Waal explains that apes watch each other constantly and observe their comrades’ behavior with great interest and attention. Perhaps, de Waal speculates, they follow the model of the sushi-master apprentice. This apprentice spends at least three years attending to the clientele and cleaning the kitchen, watching the sushi-makers without being allowed to prepare the sushi himself. After these years of observation, he is permitted to make his first sushi, “which he will do with remarkable dexterity.” It is possible that, in like manner, the watching of other apes instills in the individual ape a sequence of actions that will become useful later on.

De Waal divides his book into three sections: “Cultural Glasses: The Way We See Other Animals,” “What is Culture, and Does It Exist in Nature?,” and “Human Nature: The Way We See Ourselves.” In the first section, de Waal provides a history of the study of animals, discussing at length the work of great naturalists...

(The entire section is 1891 words.)