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  Saturday  September 22  2007    05: 41 PM

book recommendation

The Ape and the Sushi Master:
Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist

by Frans De Waal

Apes are quite a bit more evolved than they have been given credit and we are perhaps not as evolved as we have credited ourselves.

When apes ape apes
Man is not the only cultured animal to look and learn, as Frans de Waal explains in The Ape and the Sushi Master

There is a sad story told about the Californian condor. These magnificent winged scavengers became so reduced in numbers in the 1980s that zoologists decided to round up the last wild animals and establish a breeding colony. Females were carefully isolated and their chicks fed with hand puppets in the colour and shape of adult birds, just the thing to ensure the fledglings would turn into real condors, the scientists reckoned.

They were sadly mistaken. When the young birds were released back to the wild, they promptly abandoned their mountain homes and started hanging around farms and towns. They were simply incapable of scavenging for themselves. 'The normally shy, magnificent foragers had been turned into barnyard chicks perching on rooftops,' says Franz de Waal, a Dutch primatologist now working in Atlanta.

In short, it had proved impossible, despite every effort, not to taint the birds' adolescences and disrupt their ability to learn from their peers. It is a problem that affects not just the captive condor but the hand-reared chimp, the zoo-bred gorilla and the tamed baboon.

In every case, each animal's culture - the milieu that allows them to learn by example from their fellow creatures - is destroyed by the actions and presence of men and women.

Animal culture would therefore seem to be of unassailable importance in understanding the natural world. Yet until recently, most scientists would have flatly rejected its existence. As one put it, culture is 'that which the human species has and other social species lack'. To which de Waal has only one response: a loud raspberry.


Are You in Anthropodenial?
Frans de Waal portrays altruistic apes and magnanimous monkeys.

After finishing Frans de Waal's engaging history of primate studies, ''The Ape and the Sushi Master,'' I wasn't surprised, a day later, to come across a Web site called ''Bush or Chimp?'' The juxtaposition of head shots of the new president alongside chimpanzees, in poses ranging from slack-jawed joviality to goofy hooting, plays off a timeworn joke.

The laughter depends on the underlying assumption that while apes may look like humans, akin even to the most powerful leader in the world, there still must be a quantum leap from them to us. But the laughter grows thinner by the year as one by one the supposed bellwether differences between apes and humans, like toolmaking, fall away. Chimpanzees use leaves as seats, as it turns out; they fashion a kind of footwear to protect themselves from thorns; they ''fish'' for termites with twigs and reeds they strip and cut for the occasion.

But surely culture itself remains impregnable, a fortress where the superiority of human beings, steeped in teaching, learning, language, art and cuisine, still resides. Let Bonzo try to get a table at Elaine's.

Now along comes one of the world's most distinguished primatologists, intent on breaching this last bastion of anthropocentrism. A professor of primate behavior at Emory University and the director of the Living Links Center, de Waal draws on more than 30 years of his own research among captive monkeys, bonobos and other chimpanzees, as well as on studies of wild primates by colleagues around the world, to poke ''a maximum number of holes in the nature/culture divide.''


CHAPTER ONE: The Ape and the Sushi Master

Scientists are supposed to study animals in a totally objective fashion, similar to the way we inspect a rock or measure the circumference of a tree trunk. Emotions are not to interfere with the assessment. The animal-rights movement capitalizes on this perception, depicting scientists as devoid of compassion.

Some scientists have proudly broken with the mold. Roger Fouts, known for his work with language-trained chimpanzees, says in Next of Kin: "I had to break the first commandment of the behavioral sciences: Thou shalt not love thy research subject." Similarly, Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy, in When Elephants Weep, make it seem that very few scientists appreciate the emotional lives of animals.

In reality, the image of the unloving and unfeeling scientist is a caricature, a straw man erected by those wishing to pat themselves on the back for having their hearts in the right place. Unfeeling scientists do exist, but the majority take great pleasure in their animals. If one reads the books of Konrad Lorenz, Robert Yerkes, Bernd Heinrich, Ken Norris, Jane Goodall, Cynthia Moss, Edward Wilson, and so on, it becomes impossible to maintain that animals are invariably studied with a cold, callous eye.