The Ape and the Sushi Master

by Frans B. M. de Waal
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1891

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.

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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 Secondly, his book “allows us to carry one more outdated Western dualism to its grave: the notion that human culture is the opposite of human nature.”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 including Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988), B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), and Kinji Imanishi (1902-1992), and chronicling the philosophical battles between scientists of the behaviorist school and ethologists—those who believe training is everything, and those who argue on behalf of instinct. De Waal coins the word “anthropodenial” to describe the almost universal reluctance of human beings to consider themselves animals. Anthropomorphism—the projection of thoughts and feelings onto animals to make them seem more humanlike than they are—is the bane of many scientists, who strive for total objectivity in their study of animal behavior. For such scientists, anthropomorphism is an embarrassment and a danger. De Waal, on the other hand, counts himself among those biologists who assume that similarities between humans and related species reflect a shared evolutionary past and therefore serve as a logical starting point for primatology. Anthropomorphism, he asserts, has proven its use by providing science with a vocabulary that includes such notions as dominance, courtship, play, and bonding.

The third chapter of section 1, “Bonobos and Fig Leaves,” displays de Waal’s gift for describing primate behavior with a humor and reasonableness that will disarm both the prudish and the licentious. The bonobo, as close a human cousin as is the chimpanzee, is a very different creature in its behavior: “If chimpanzees are from Mars, bonobos must be from Venus.” Bonobos are egalitarian, highly sexual, and female-dominant, which makes many scientists and ordinary television viewers squeamish. De Waal explains the notoriety of the bonobos, the apes that use sex to solve conflict, with frankness and a plea to realize that their pacifism and solidarity are to be admired, not explained away. In the following chapter, he moves from animal sexuality to animal art, beginning with the aesthetic expressions of birds—with an amusing account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous pet starling—and discussing many examples of ape paintings. De Waal returns frequently to the definition of culture and in doing so shrinks the human self-definition as uniquely sophisticated.

In section 2, de Waal tackles the debate over animal culture by examining what animals learn from each other and how, and the degree to which it resembles the way that humans learn from each other. He recounts his own journey to the island of Koshima to witness the famous Japanese monkeys who wash sweet potatoes in the salty sea, then follows with numerous examples of apes accomplishing goals, such as cracking nuts or playing games, by learning from others. De Waal names this process BIOL, or Bonding- and Identification-based Observational Learning, to emphasize the significance of social bonding in the process.

De Waal documents examples of hand-clasping among chimpanzees at the Yerkes Center, a custom exhibiting a central characteristic of culture: independence of the originator, a chimp named Georgia who was eventually removed from the group. He notes that such a custom has no survival value benefits, another sign of culture, although other activities witnessed among apes, such as creating footwear and eating medicinal plants, clearly do. More provocatively, he reports examples of teaching among various species, which, if it exists, would require empathy and role reversal. Descriptions of the results of introducing individuals of one species into the tribe of another, switching infants, and creating new environments bolster de Waal’s argument that primates form cultures in which social arrangements are taught and acquired.

Section 3, on human nature, begins by discussing the theories of the psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), who studied dominance among monkeys early in his career and who is famed for charting the pyramidal “hierarchy of needs” and wrote about “self-actualization” and “self-esteem.” How does it feel, de Waal asks, to be the dominant member of a troop of apes? Do they enjoy self-esteem? De Waal recalls his years at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands and subsequent visits, during which he observed many modes of chimpanzee manipulation of and by alpha males.

Reading about chimpanzee power plays may help politicians recognize elementary political strategies that they themselves probably apply unconsciously. Moreover, they will learn that despite the constant jockeying for position there is a certain internal logic, even morality, to the emerging social system. Success is not just a matter of wiping out the opposition. In the wild, male chimpanzees depend on one another for hunting and territorial defense; compromise and reconciliation are as much part of political skills as fighting ability.

He turns from opportunism to an extensive discussion of altruism—kindness done to another without any immediate or apparent reward to oneself—among animals to challenge the behaviorist vision of animals as trained robots. De Waal tells not only of chimpanzees who express consolation to other injured or handicapped chimps and even to humans who feigned distress, but also of dogs who nursed tiger and snow leopard kittens in zoos, despite their own potential danger when the cats grew to full size. Dozens of anecdotes of nurturing behavior among bats, dolphins, and rescue dogs seem to mirror human altruism. Considering such examples, de Waal shows that the notion of the “selfish gene” is overly simplistic, despite its popularity. In all cases, de Waal follows his animal stories with a return to comparable human behavior, driving home his point that the similarities are great and the differences merely a matter of degree.

In the final chapter, “Down With Dualism! Two Millennia of Debate About Human Goodness,” de Waal recalls the work of the Swedish-Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck (1853-1936), whose theories on the origin of morality in humans were based on a belief in innate human goodness. Westermarck wrote about “retributive emotions,” which give rise both to gratitude and to revenge. “Are we naturally good?” de Waal asks, pondering the human capacity for compromise. “And if not, whence does human goodness come? . . . Perhaps we are naturally bad, and just pretend to be good?” De Waal summarizes the views of other sociologists, from Thomas Huxley and Sigmund Freud to his own contemporaries George Williams and Richard Dawkins, and concludes that many of them trip over their own arguments: “human behavior is an evolutionary product except when it is hard to explain.” De Waal himself concludes that morality is “a natural outgrowth of ancient social tendencies.” In doing so, he argues convincingly that humans must concede the unnecessarily defensive position that they are unique, and embrace their role as one species, even if a special one, among many others in the animal kingdom.

This study has seized attention in the fields of anthropology and primatology, but it is written for the layman. The Ape and the Sushi Master belongs on the shelf of every animal lover as well as every public and academic library.

Sources for Further Study

American Scientist 89 (May/June, 2001): 264.

Booklist 97 (March 1, 2001): 1209.

Discover 22 (March, 2001): 87.

Library Journal 126 (February 15, 2001): 197.

Nature 411 (May 31, 2001): 525.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (April 8, 2001): 30.

Publishers Weekly 248 (February 19, 2001): 81.

Scientific American 284 (April, 2001): 104.

The Washington Post Book World, March 11, 2001, p. 10.

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