Book Review: The Cultured Chimpanzee
Post Reply
Thread Rating:
  • 0 Votes - 0 Average
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
06-05-2013, 09:17 PM
Book Review: The Cultured Chimpanzee
I recently wrote this for my biological anthropology class. Since it has to do with the presence of culture in our chimp cousins, it is related to the evolution of human culture. It's also interesting to note that it was written by a professor that used to teach at my university.

The Cultured Chimpanzee (2004) by William McGrew

[Image: fourstars0.png]

What is culture? If you were to ask a lecture hall full of scholars, each one would probably give you a different definition. Yet, it is generally held that culture is a human universal. Language is often presented as being a unique cultural trait that separates us from the animals because it gave voice to the likes of Aristotle and Shakespeare. But does this mean animals can’t have culture since they don’t have language? Some people might be quick to dismiss the idea of animal culture, but they would probably be surprised to learn that in the 1960s, Jane Goodall first described the chimps of Gombe using vegetation as tools to fish for ants and termites. Countless primatologists have followed in her footsteps to discover other facets of chimp material and social culture. This and more is discussed in The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology (2004) by William McGrew, a renowned primatologist. The book is geared towards individuals wishing to pursue primatology with an emphasis on primate culture as a career. But it also serves as a call for other disciplines to reevaluate their views on non-human culture, as well as to ask primatologists and other anthropologists to cross train more in order to be better overall researchers. I like this book because it is a concise reference that condenses decades of research into a few pages, the subject is approached from both sides, and it warns against common mistakes or roadblocks made during research.

So much material has been published on primatology over the last half century that the total man years involved equal more than 150 years of research! This book is an ideal guide for those wishing to learn about chimpanzee culture because it condenses all that has been written on the subject during that time into just a few pages. Two entire chapters are devoted to chimp material and social culture. For material culture, he covers insect fishing and dipping with grass and twig technology, nut cracking with stone and wood technology, water extraction with chewed up leaves, fruit smashing, and nest building. As for social culture, he covers the social structure, vocalizations, dominance displays, hunting parties, mating rituals, grooming rituals, games, taboos against water, and even odd instances of males displaying at waterfalls. One downside to this concise approach, however, is that he sacrifices breadth for succinctness. For example, he only lists one instance of possible self-medication in the entire book, but this is not representative of the entire range reported for chimpanzees. His previous book Chimpanzee Material Culture (1992) has an entire chapter devoted to the subject. But this doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have spared a few more paragraphs to describe other types of possible self-medication to make this book a more comprehensive survey.

As would be expected, not every scholar is convinced that animals have culture. This book exposes readers to arguments from both sides of the issue. This is important for making informed decisions. McGrew takes great pains to discuss research on the material and social culture of fish, birds, otters, dolphins, whales, and primates like monkeys and the other great apes (gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos). The discussions on (human) culture vs. (animal) tradition and cultural (learned) tool use vs. mindless instinctual tool use are very interesting (a good follow up book is Animal Tool Behavior (2011)). One oft-cited anthropocentric critique of cultural primatology is known as the “space shuttle” argument. Some people claim that chimpanzees don’t have culture when compared with humans because they’ve never built a space shuttle and sent it into space. McGrew explains this is a flawed argument because not all humans have done this. In addition, he describes how human technology was once at the same level as chimp technology, so the people who make this argument overlook the hundreds of thousands of years that it took for it to advance to its current state. In all cases, McGrew argues his position adequately, but I felt like his passion didn’t come through in his writing. It seemed very flat at times. I think Frans de Waal does a more eloquent job of arguing for chimp culture in his book The Ape and the Sushi Master (2001).

The best part about the book is that McGrew calls upon his 30 years of field experience to give future primatologists 20 pieces of advice ranging from avoiding anthropomorphism to borrowing research techniques from cultural anthropologists. I think the very best piece of advice that he gives is to not confuse an anecdote, a single instance of novel behavior, with a custom, an established behavior that is practiced by the majority of a population. An example of an anecdote would be a chimp mother actively teacher her child (most chimps learn passively), and an example of a custom would be nut cracking with stone or wood tools across a community. Some novel behaviors end with their creators. However, if it can be demonstrated to spread and jump the generation gap, the behavior has become a custom. The only way to distinguish between the two is to collect as much data as possible. Taking such precautions will keep a researcher from making unsubstantiated claims. Proponents of pseudoscience tend to do the opposite; they will promote an anecdote as being representative of an entire field of study, which is obviously unethical.

For all of its strengths and weaknesses, this book is perfect for the interested layman and those wishing to pursue cultural primatology as a career. I particularly liked the section talking about the benefits of primatologists working with archaeologists. Collaborations like this help to elevate the study of chimp culture to the level of ethnography because a catalog of their material culture over long stretches of time can be recorded for posterity. For instance, the 2007 paper “4,300-Year-old chimpanzee sites and the origins of percussive stone technology” shows that the chimps of the Ivory Coast in Africa have been using stone tools for at least four millennia. McGrew himself has worked with archaeologists on several occasions. His recently joint-authored 2011 paper “’An Ape’s View of the Oldowan’ Revisited” suggests the 2 million-year-old Oldowan stone tools found all over the world were most likely the product of ape culture and not human culture.
Visit this user's website Find all posts by this user
Like Post Quote this message in a reply
[+] 2 users Like ghostexorcist's post
Post Reply
Forum Jump: