A review of Franz De Waal’s “The Ape and the Sushi Master”

A review of Franz De Waal’s “The Ape and the Sushi Master”

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The following is also posted at http://www.behavior.net/forums/evolutionaryalong with supplemental essays.——————

Imo and Frans Wrote a BookA review of: De Waal, F. (2001) The Ape and the Sushi Master: CulturalReflections of a Primatologist. NY: Basic Books. 433 pp., $26 list.James Brody, Ph.D.Editor, Evolutionary Psychology & Clinical Sociobiologyhttp://www.behavior.net/forums/evolutionary

We each build our own nest with our lives, one that suits us and no oneelse. The Ape and the Sushi Master is part of de Waal’s nest, anotherexpression of his fascination with kindness, cooperation, and the emergenceof social order in primates and other species, a vital exploration of oursameness with other life.

He challenges the distinction between “human” and “animal” and develops hiscase through finding human traits that occur in animals. Some of our mostcherished ones such as culture, kindness, and even art are material in deWaal’s case. De Waal anchors his case with biographies that bothdemonstrate the polarities that concern him and make his story easier toenjoy and to remember.

Culture, instinct, and imitation

De Waal introduces us to Kinji Imanishi and the Japanese traditions thatexpect continuity and cooperation between living forms. Japanese scientistsgive apes and monkeys individual names and study their social context;westerners missed those things in wild chimpanzees when we looked forabstractions such as dominance. That same difference in tradition openedJapanese minds to the phenomenon of cultural transmission.

We meet Imo, the first known creature to be both a potato washer and arhesus. She touches the future through a wonderfully Lamarckian trick, thetransmission of an acquired characteristic across generations but withinkinship lines. As de Waal puts it: “…the Lamarckian idea that acquiredcharacteristics can be inherited has found its realization not in thephysical characteristics he was thinking of, but in behavior. Geneticpredispositions feed into culture, culture affects survival, and survivaland reproduction determine which genotypes (and cultural tricks, JB) spreadin the population. Order emerges more quickly than genes can arrange.” DeWaal and Imo accomplish the same thing, Imo by teaching her kin how to washpotatoes and de Waal by writing a memorable book.

Seven chimpanzee sites have been studied for a total of 151 years (SeeWhiten, et al., 1999). Each site has its own tools and some of theLamarckian chimp tricks are: nut cracking (younger chimpanzees train foryears with no evident rewards), grooming methods, louse removal (a skillthat varies with family), and even self medication. In their interface withhumans, apes have posed with books in their laps, brushed their teeth, usedsaws, hammers and nails, strung hammocks, and put on T-shirts. We got averb, “to ape,” from their skills: the ethologists have shown us thesurvival value of imitation, that imitation and culture finish the workstarted in utero, that of adjusting individuals and niches to each other.

The non primates are also pretty busy adjusting their worlds. Even Skinner(1966) talked about a bird, the African honey guide, in a manner thatsuggests cultural transmission for the cooperative gambits between it andhumans. House cats open doors, blue tits teach each other how to removebottle caps from milk containers, and bears teach each other thatwindshields and doors from some tourist vehicles are easy to pop open bybouncing on the roof. Much as chimps crack nuts, both species want to getat the meats inside. (The concepts of “in” and “out” must be very old.)

“The fact that primates sometimes duplicate behavior, such as the rubbingtogether of stones or a special drinking technique, that confers zeroadvantages is extremely telling. It teaches us that cultural learning isnot about rewards, but about fitting in (emphasis added, JB)…We can nowassume these tendencies, which underlie all forms of cultural transmission,to be far older than our own tenure on the planet.” (p 238.)*

De Waal briefly discusses BIOL (bonding and identification-basedobservational learning) but also echoes Matt Ridley’s arguments (Ridley2000) against cultural determinism :”In the minds of many people, cultureis associated with freedom…. But doesn’t culture restrict our freedom asmuch (or as little) as biology? And where do our cultural capacities comefrom? Don’t they spring from the same source as the so-called instincts?”
(p. 236). De Waal, thus, endorses the idea of a culture that is generatedby nature.

Kindness and selfishness:

De Waal reinforces several recent, popular books on animal compassion (vonKriesler, 2001; Linden, 1999) and extends his earlier ones, Good Natured(De Waal, 1996) and Peace Making Among Primates (De Waal, 1989). Forexample, female dogs will nurse and rear tiger cubs, later dwelling safelyin the cage with their adult adoptees who stalk humans. Blue jays givealarm calls, the famous gorilla, Binti Jua, returned a human child to itsmother, dolphins drive sharks away from humans in the sea, lady bats serveas midwives for their conspecifics, and rescue dogs need to find a livinghuman among the dead. Otherwise, the dogs fade into apathy and depression.Even our brats pick up kindness as if it were an adaptation, in GeoffMiller’s words, “easy to learn, often fun to do, and seen in every normalindividual (Miller, 1999).”

De Waal does not postulate a noble savage but starts with EdwardWestermarck, who introduced social science to Darwinism while arguing, inKropotkin’s tradition, for a “natural good” in us animals. Westermarck wasimmediately discredited by Freud and by Levi-Strauss who needed incest as aprime example of human culture’s overcoming human nature. If we’renaturally good, why do we need either Freud or a super ego?

De Waal sketches a tradition from Thom Huxley and Thomas Hobbes and throughFreud to modern characters such as George Williams, Richard Dawkins, MattRidley or Bob Wright: we are naturally bad and we overcome our nature byour willful spinning of culture and kindness. Most of these people,however, are more complex than the caricature that de Waal draws on top ofthem. Bob Wright, for example, is a moralist by family history and careerand possibly a gene. His most recent book, Nonzero: The Logic of HumanDestiny, (Wright 2000) traces for cultures the cooperative ventures that deWaal finds for individuals.


We remember gossip better than data (Sugiyama, 2001; Dunbar, 1994) and deWaal gives us balanced morality tales about arrogance and humility,persistence and wisdom. There is also death in de Waal’s stories: oblivionIS a form of dying, often arranged by ridicule or silence whether towardsLorenz or towards Gould, whether by school girls or by the next generationof ethologists, and whether on the playground or in conferences.

Similar plots occur in Greek drama, Kabuki, American westerns, and StarTrek. Kirk and Spock are replaced by Lorenz, Tinbergen, Carpenter,Halstead, Imanishi, Gould, Skinner, Dawkins, Thom Huxley, George Williams,Westermarck, and even cameos filled by Matt Ridley, Bob Wright, and oneanonymous behaviorist. (No women!) Robert Ardrey is credited with thehypothesis of language’s replacing grooming. (Dunbar who wrote a book onthis theme doesn’t mention Ardrey and de Waal doesn’t mention Dunbar!)
Thanks to de Waal my list of heroes is reordered and expanded.

Lorenz and Tinbergen

The younger de Waal fed on Lorenz’ irrepressible ideas and style; the olderde Waal recognized that his hero was swept, as energetic people often canbe, into applications of untested ideas about human evolution, groupselection, and sacrificing individuals for group benefit. Thus, Lorenzjoined the faculty at the University of Konigsberg and became an activeparticipant in the scientific publicity of the Third Reich. He contrastsLorenz the dynamo who saved ethology from behaviorism with Lorenz thecontributor to Nazi social agendas.

Niko Tinbergen eventually shared the Nobel Prize with Lorenz and von Frischin 1973. Tinbergen was methodical and worked by systematic replication, acollaborator with Lorenz before and after the wary but a contrast andcomplement to him both in war record and scientific style. During the warLorenz and Tinbergen sought and found different niches and responded todifferent audiences, becoming more like their respective audiences and lesslike each other. Reunited after the war, they inspired and magnified eachother, neither would have accomplished quite so much if alone.

If imitation is about fitting in then an unappreciated reciprocity gambit,raise the stakes, (Roberts & Sherrat, 1998) can make it dangerous. That is,open small and if matched, increase your next bet. It works inconversations and it works in computer simulations, easily beatingtit-for-tat and similar strategies. RTS is sometimes dangerous because itis a positive feedback system that makes small agreements, agreementseither to love or to hate, large to the point of addiction or intolerance.RTS describes the resonance between Lorenz and his wartime audiences and,ironically, contemporary reactions either to Lorenz or to Gould. Dopaminecircuits show similar multiplier effects (see Waelti, et al, 2001).

Music and painting

We learn about animal music and art. No surprise, many dogs and birds don’tlike Schoenberg and prefer slower compositions to those of Frans Liszt.Conversely, we write poems about bird songs and the melody for one ofMozart’s compositions was taken from his pet starling. (Were Audrey andDunbar wrong? Did language emerge not from grooming but from singing andmate recruiting? After all, some dogs howl when their owners sing. Pain ormating? See Miller, 2000.)

Pigeons can sort art by artist and by school: train them to choose Renoirand they generalize to other impressionists and can identify paintings by aindividual artist with greater accuracy than most humans. (Humans prefersymmetry in their partners. Does a female pigeon prefer symmetry in a malepigeon? Can pigeons sort humans by symmetry?) Chimpanzees are persistentwith their painted compositions, produce orderly work, and reach a stage ofcompletion, firmly resisting editors and their corrections.


De Waal missed a couple of opportunities. First, humans are not the onlyspecies to terraform (Brody, 2000). From lugworms, crickets, and coral toNew York architects—organisms pick, modify, and construct environments.They not only use tools to extend opportunities, to widen their environmentin a particular setting, but to stabilize it. This phenomenon, thatenvironments statistically compete to be selected, cuts at 180 degrees tostandard neoDarwinism. Turner (2000) has magnificent engineering data andspecies-niche products that make this point (See also Lewontin, 2000.)

Second, I would have enjoyed his giving us a chapter on religion. If thereis continuity between us and other species in all things, then religionwill not be peculiar to humans. The same views and arguments that apply toart, goodness, and culture surely could inform us about elephant, dolphin,or chimpanzee superstitions and animism. (De Waal spooked two of theArnheim chimps into resurrecting their old alliance: he showed them a filmclip of their former, long dead, nemesis. One chimp immediately ran to thelap of the other. If the movie and some ground shaking were associated witha specific section of the enclosure, would the chimps systematically avoidit? Would they convince other chimps to do likewise? Would they start toleave food?

National Geographic had a cover photograph of Koko, a gorilla, cradling ablack and gray, tiger-striped kitten. She asked for it with sign languageand gave it a name, “All Ball.” Any reasonable person could accept thephotograph and the story as final proof our similarity to Koko. The Ape andthe Sushi Master is also for reasonable people, the one-third who alreadyaccept the idea and the second third that are open to thinking about it. Inthis sense, de Waal preaches to the choir and we are lucky to be in it.

His conviction is that kindness is as much a part of our nature asselfishness. I agree and find The Ape and the Sushi Master a magnificentargument. He tells us to lighten up a bit, we’re not so special and othercreatures are more creative and “moral” than we credit them. His closingwords before the Epilogue, p 357:

“…the child is not going against its own nature by developing a caring,moral attitude, and civil society is not like an out-of-control gardensubdued by a sweating gardener. We are merely following evolved tendencies.How refreshingly simple!”

One must imagine de Waal happy.

Note* We think and move within physical as well as biological nature:dichotomies are part of us perhaps for statistical reasons and twomillennia later, we may have enough data to become Pythagoreans (See Soleand Goodwin, 2001; Ball, 1999; Kauffman, 1995). Computer simulationssuggest that order (cooperation and kindness?) can evolve from chaos(selfish autonomy?), that chaos can evolve from order (Kauffman, 1995). Byapparent logical necessity evolution must work in a “phase transition”between the two just as every one of us operates in a phase transition whenwe float in a pool of water or travel in the first feet of earth’satmosphere.

We should not be surprised if genes also follow statistical payoffs, ourproblem is in identifying the conditions for those payoffs. Imitation maysomeday be shown to have statistical benefits that are more rapid butsimilar to those achieved from mutation and natural selection. Our sense ofkindness and cooperation might do for social order what electron bonds dofor atoms.

If so, then genes are our navigators, kindness our sensed appreciation ofmaking order, and approach-avoidance conflict our anchor, one that keeps usnear our sense of “maybe.” Selfishness points us one direction, guilt andkindness in the opposite; sexual and natural selection are their oars andrudders (Brody, in press). Thus, neither de Waal nor anyone else willeliminate dichotomies. Nonetheless, he and others might increase ourawareness of how narrow our distinctions and how short our yardsticks as wenegotiate other life both for life and for wisdom.


Ball, P. (1999) Transitions still to be made. Nature, 402: 73-76.

Brody, J. (2000) Active Darwinism offsets mismatch. Paper given at theannual meeting, Human Behavior & Evolution Society, Amherst, MA, 6/8/00.

———- (in press) From Physics and Evolutionary Neuroscience toPsychotherapy: Phase Transitions and Adaptations, Diagnosis and Treatment.In G. Cory & R. Gardner (Eds.) Frontiers and Convergence: The Neuroethologyof Paul MacLean. Praeger-Greenwood.

Dunbar, R. 1996) Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language.Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Kauffman, S. (1995) At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws ofSelf Organization and Complexity. NY: Oxford.

von Kriesler, K. (2001) Beauty in the Heart: Stories of Animals Who Chooseto Do Good. NY: Putnam.

Lewontin, R. (1998/2000) Triple helix: Gene, organism, environment.Cambridge, MA, Harvard

Linden, E. (1999) The Parrot’s Lament and Other Tales of Animal Intrigue,Intelligence, and Ingenuity. NY: Dutton.

Miller, G. (1999) “Human Language and Intelligence as Sexually SelectedFitness Indicators” Paper given at the Hunter School of Social Work,4/14/99.

———- (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolutionof Human Nature. NY: Doubleday.

Ridley, M. (2000) Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters.NY: Harper Collins

Roberts, G. & Sherratt, T. (1998) Development of cooperative relationshipsthrough increasing investment. Nature, 394: 175-179.

Skinner, B. F. (1966) The phylogeny and ontogeny of behavior. Science, 153:1205-1213.

Sole, R., & Goodwin, B. (2000) Signs of Life: How Complexity PervadesBiology. NY: Basic.

Sugiyama, M. S. (2001) Food, foragers, and folklore: the role of narrativein human subsistence. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22: 221-240.

Turner, J. Scott (2000) The Extended Organism: The Physiology ofAnimal-Built Structures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

de Wa l, F. (1996) Good Natured: The Evolution of Right & Wrong in Humansand other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ Press.

———- (1989) Peacemaking Among Primates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ.Press.

———- (1997) Bonobos: The Forgotten Ape, with photographs by F.Lanting. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Waelti, P., Dickinson, A, & Schultz, W. (2001) Dopamine responses complywith basic assumptions of formal learning theory. Nature, 412: 43-48.

Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama,Y., Tutin, C., Wrangham, R., & Boesch, C. (1999) Cultures in chimpanzees.Nature, 399: 682-685.