Humans have no monopoly on culture or ethics, argues a respected expert on our animal cousins.
De Waal (Bonobo, 1997, etc.) supports his point with such examples as Japanese monkeys that wash sweet potatoes in salt water to enhance the flavor, a “custom” observed nowhere else in the world, and traceable to a single simian innovator a few decades ago. Such behavior can only be described as cultural, in the sense of being transmitted by example within the social group rather than inherently determined by the genes. Similar instances are numerous, and not just among the primates. Songbirds have local dialects, often based on the performances of “master singers” in their region. Likewise, observations of captive apes have often shown that a particular grooming practice originates with one individual and gradually spreads to the whole troop. Bonobos, the apes perhaps closest genetically to humans, have been seen offering sex in exchange for food. Most of these insights into animal culture have come in recent decades, when western zoologists began to adopt the methods of their Japanese peers, in particular learning to identify and follow individual animals. De Waal suggests that the Asian scientists were able to adopt this approach because their intellectual heritage does not assume, as western culture does, a rigid barrier between humans and animals. Likewise, the once-dominant behaviorist model of mental function, which not only ignores distinctions between individual animals, but considers a result based on bird behavior equivalent to one gathered from mammals, is portrayed here as a peculiarly western aberration. De Waal mixes evocative anecdotes and musings on methodology and philosophy with a sure hand; the reader is likely to come away convinced by his insights.
An extremely well-written, highly provocative discussion of the origins and meaning of culture.