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Ape and the Sushi Master: Reflections by a Primatologist

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2001

    Monkey see do is monkey think ?

    Writing with a broad, non-academic audience in mind, ?The Ape and the Sushi Master? provides an enjoyable and informative exploration of our human cultural biases. With respect to the more commonly reflexive leanings towards anthropomorphism when reflecting upon non-human animal behaviour, De Waal repeatedly reminds us of its extents, rather than constraints throughout this volume. Thematic throughout the chapters is the view that little is to be gained from the rather naively claimed evolutionary dichotomy of ?culture Vs nature? (as has always been the case for the equally problematic and inane ?nature Vs nurture? debate in my view). Whether reading this book will help prevent arguments continuing in the struggle for one side against the other, De Waal clearly states the circularity of these positions, including the (non-obvious to many) fact that they do not necessarily provide opposing views. Even for the more academic reader, this point is made in a way many students of animal behaviour (and indeed, perhaps, some of their professors) might benefit from reading. I would strongly recommend this general reading book if only for that reason. The prevailing view recurrent throughout the chapters is that culture is a part of human nature (hence the circularity of the false dichotomy), and, in the mold of Lorenz, or the more popular writer Desmond Morris, De Waal does not dismiss the continuity between human and non-human animal behaviour. With regards any specific human cognitive developments, however, the evolutionary antecedents of such in the comparative literature are dealt with at a purely anecdotal level in this book (though a welcome set of notes and references provide some direction for those interested to check out some primary sources). Of interest perhaps to those wanting to better understand human sexual behaviour (and its variations), De Waal includes an informative chapter concerning concerning the bonobo chimpanzee ?kamasutra primates?. These are presented as a highly sociosexual species for reasons other than providing solely a male territorial imperative. Distinct from his earlier ?Chimpanzee Politics?, De Waal?s commentry here is consistent with his more recent ideas concerning reconciliation behaviour and social bonding via mutual sex in both single and mixed pairs/groups of apes. Citing the prudishness of (especially American) humans in preventing this story being more widely known (and well told in this volume, Ch.3), this bonobo chimpanzee behaviour is put forward as the most likely contender for mis-anthropomorphism since that of their chimpanzee cousin Pan troglodities? following discussions provoked by Darwin?s ?Origin of Species?. The rather puzzling reference to sushi in the title can be explained by the inclusion of two interwoven themes appearing throughout the volume. The first is De Waal?s championing the contribution of the pioneering work of Japanese primatologists in semi-naturalistic ape colonisation studies (e.g., the longitudinal studies which claimed the cultural transmission of potato washing). The second is reference to the strict training regime of the Japanese Sushi chef, who undergoes upwards of three years of observational learning from a sushi Master Chef (human cultural transmission of fish dressing) prior to their exercising any of the skills required. Both these sets of findings (the former especially enjoyable to read from this book) bear upon another pair of terms of contention, ?learning and instinct?, but less is explicitly made of this old bone here than demands comment in review. Perhaps a comment should be made here, however, with regards De Waal?s claim for the existence of non-food related contingency rewards in Ch. 6. Although the evidence remains in a sense anecdotal, and without denying behaviours as being otherwise goal-directed, De Waal suggests that social learning is ?so

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