Thursday, June 17, 2010

Frans De Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflection of a Primatologist (2001)

A key idea here is anthropomorphism. In prior posts, this term (or anthropocentric) refers to the human projection of human qualities to imaginary spirits, including gods, lesser gods, angels, devils and the like. But Frans De Waals, a primatologist whose research is cited in the books discussed in several previous posts, considers anthropomorphism from a different perspective in The Ape and the Sushi Master: the willingness or unwillingness of humans to consider that human qualities (intelligence, consciousness, intentionality, emotions, morals, social behavior, art, culture, and the like) are shared by other animals, particularly those that are evolutionarily close to humans --- the willingness or unwillingness (anthropodenial) to acknowledge continuity between humans and other animals. Not surprisingly, just as there is a spectrum of views or biases on whether imaginary spirits are real and have human characteristics such as intelligence, consciousness, intentionality, emotions and the like, there is a spectrum of views or biases about just how similar humans are to other animals. Animal research, as De Waals demonstrates, is breaking down and eroding the bias that regards humans outside the rest of the animal kingdom and dismisses any continuity between the human species and other animal species.

Whatever our view is of the merits of anthropomorphism in the spirit-world context, anthropomorphism in the context of studying other species is a constructive approach to understanding our own species. The opposite of anthropomorphism is anthropodenial, which denies the continuity between humans and other animals. Anthropomorphism is part and parcel of the way the human mind works, writes De Waals, but it comes in many shapes and forms: the naive view studies an animal and asks, how would I feel in this situation? An interesting, but nevertheless difficult view is mental role-reversal that asks: what is it like to be that animal? And a practical, neutral view is to recognize that as we humans try our best to understand animal behavior, we recognize that we are all animals and that we use our own perspective to develop testable theories that would help us understand what animals are really doing. In other words, humans just need to take command of their anthropomorphic instinct and filter out biases that the instinct may generate.

Animal research is not limited to genetic similarities and differences, but it is beginning to document the existence of animal culture and the capacity of animals other than humans to learn from others in their species. Observations on the nature vs nurture debate are not limited to bipedal hominids. In the human context, there is still much confusion about the extent to which our behavior and culture is defined by nature or nurture. The confusion is revealed in the discussion of Richard Powers' novel Generosity (November 30, 2009 post) about whether there is a "God gene" in the human genome that dictates our species' inclination to believe in a creator of the universe that is an ultimate cause of all physical reality. Those in anthropodenial seem inclined to think there is such a gene. The vast majority of humanity who now accept the continuity among species, and particularly genetically similar species, understand that god is a part of culture, is something that is learned, and varies among human cultural communities.

For De Waal, the bias of anthropodenial is reflected in the claim that only humans enjoy culture. While it is true that humans have a unique and expansive culture not enjoyed by any other species, it is not true that other animals are without culture. To explain this fact, De Waal asserts that we must first have a definition of culture, and for him it is not a definition that is tied to religion, the arts, language, or politico-economic systems and institutions. Culture is the transmission of habits and information by social means. The social environment includes the immediate family, the extended family, the community, and communities beyond, and the "social means" includes all forms other interacting within the species as well as with other species, such as observing others, feeding, grooming, sex, communicating, sharing, ignoring, rewarding, punishing, empowering, establishing moral rules, and killing. When culture is described in these broader, more general terms, barriers to appreciating the similarities between humans and other primates can be avoided.

The unanswered question here is whether behavior, human or non-human, is entirely genetically determined, culturally determined, or some mixture of both. De Waal sides with the latter view.

Genes code for physical attributes: at the basic constituent level, genes code for biological and electro-chemical processes: how atomic matter attracts, coheres, mixes, reacts, communicates, and repels. Genes contain information that, when expressed in any given phenotype, cause chemicals and electrical signals in the animal body to trigger movement, rest, perhaps feelings of warmth, cold, alarm, fear, pleasure, drowsiness, satiousness, hunger, comfort, repulsion, and emotions as well. These electro-chemical reactions influence both individual and social behavior. Genes code for morphology and embryonic development, as well as, to some extent, post-natal development (for example, the amount of time it takes to achieve maturity or adulthood), which also influences individual and social behavior. Genes code for the construction of biological systems, including physiological systems such as the nervous system, the circulatory system, neural networks, and the like, all of which regulate behavior. These things are true for all of the animal kingdom. But aspects of behavior are learned, either from others or from individual experience, and if the brain of a given species has a memory capability, that learning influences behavior.

De Waal neatly summarizes the linkage between nature and culture. Culture and genetics have one thing in common --- the transmission of information: in the case of genetics information is transmitted by biological/chemical means, in the case of culture it is transmitted by social means. "This is not to say that both forms of behavioral inheritance --- the one traveling across time via genotypes, the other via phenotypes --- should not or could not be conceptually linked. Ironically, the Lamarckian idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited has found its realization not in the physical characteristics he was thinking of, but in behavior. Genetic predispositions feed into culture, culture affects survival, and survival and reproduction determine which genotypes spread in the population. In other words, there exists a dauntingly complex interplay between genetic and cultural transmission. Brave and inspiring attempts at a theory of dual inheritance, or coevolution, have been made, without, however, in any way confusing the two processes."

The research is now focused on what information exactly is transmitted genetically and what is transmitted socially. First, of course, the question focuses on behavior that is considered instinctive: is it instinctive because the genes have programmed the species to make a certain behavior more likely or highly probable? Or is behavior instinctive because it is learned at an early age or learned as a result of some experience or learned over the course of a lifetime and this is communicated inter-generationally?

There is also the question of the feedback loop between nature and culture. As De Waal explains, "Although the relation between culture and nature can be tense, culture mostly tries to get along with nature." Culture cannot change nature; culture can evolve behavior to act consistently with nature. For example, the incest taboo - an avoidance of sex among family members, long a cultural regulation, is now known to be a form of behavior in the primate world that appears to be innate in some aspects (an aversion rather than an avoidance) and perhaps learned in other respect.

So when humans establish moral or ethical rules to regulate human behavior (or even our behavior vis a vis other species, such as animal rights), is that an example where "culture mostly tries to get along with nature?" De Waal describes what he calls "moral emotions," such as sympathy and empathy, which he recognizes emerge, at least initially, from parental care. Through culture --- the transmission of habits and information by social means --- these moral emotions become moral rules. This is the subject of Paul Bloom's book Descartes' Baby. Research on newborns and infants establishes that they have innate social instincts --- that humans are hardwired by evolution with the capacity to understand and respond to the minds and movements of other people. Bloom also shows how humans are hardwired to perceive and reason about inanimate objects as well. It is this capacity that enables learning --- at a very early age, through mimicry, for example --- and De Waal shows us that this capacity exists in other species in addition to human species. The ape, and the sushi master who spends months and months merely observing how sushi is made from mentors, are more similar than we generally think.