Frans De Waal on monkey culture, potatoes

Carrie McLaren carrie at
Wed Mar 14 18:29:13 EST 2001


March 11, 2001; Sunday

Transcript # 01031104V46

HEADLINE: Primatologists Learn How Monkeys Transmit Culture

GUESTS: Frans De Waal

BYLINE: Miles O'Brien

Scientists are getting closer to understanding how the animal kingdom works,
especially in terms that are familiar to humans. Frans De Waal, a
primatologist at Emory University, has learned that monkeys transmit
knowledge and habits to each other, just as humans do.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Frans De Waal is a primatologist at Emory
University here in Atlanta. His newest book is "The Ape and the Sushi

Good to have you with us, Dr. Waal.


O'BRIEN: All right, tell me exactly -- the title is provocative. I want you
to tell me the story about that in a moment. But basically the premise of
all of this is that there -- I suppose we as humans make the assumption that
animals operate strictly on instinct. You, in observing primates, have come
to a different conclusion, haven't you?

WAAL: Well, we have concluded that they transmit a lot of knowledge and
habits to each other, just as we do, and that's why we call it cultural. So
there's a lot of behavior that they learned from others and they even
survive with that sort of behavior. So if you take, for example, a
chimpanzee and you raise him at home and you release him in the forest, he
can't even survive. So there's a lot of learning that takes place.

O'BRIEN: So it's kind of a nature versus nurture argument in some sense.

WAAL: Yes.

O'BRIEN: There are traditions, then, among animals, and does this apply to
all animals or are we just talking about, say, mammals here?

WAAL: I think it applies to many animals. For example, song birds learn
songs from each other. There's many animals -- even fish can imitate each
other to some degree. But I think chimpanzees and dolphins and sort of the
higher mammals, they are definitely the most cultural of all.

O'BRIEN: Tell us the aha moment when you had the inspiration for this thesis.

WAAL: Well, I think the high moment was 50 years ago. It was not my moment.
It was a moment in Japan where Iminishi (ph), a Japanese primatologist,
proposed that animals may have culture and two years later his students
started to discover that there was a transmission of a habit, which was
potato washing, among the monkeys on an island in Japan.

O'BRIEN: So wait a minute, the monkeys actually watched humans washing

WAAL: No, no, no...

O'BRIEN: Explain how this worked.

WAAL: The humans gave them potatoes in order to habituate them and one of
the young monkeys took a potato which was dirty and took it to the water and
washed it. And very soon thereafter her mother was doing it. And very soon
thereafter her peers were doing it. And then it transmitted. The last ones
to learn it, some of them never learned it, were the older males. So it
transmitted to the whole group except the old males. They hang onto the old
habits that they have.

O'BRIEN: All right, well, you have definitely brought us to the discussion
of the title. Tell us what that is all about.

WAAL: The title has to do with, in Japan, the sushi master has an apprentice
and the apprentice watches the sushi master. He's not allowed to touch any
sushi for a couple of years. He's just hanging around him and watches him,
mops the floor and all of this and after three years he's supposed to make
-- be able to make sushi. And so it's an observational learning setup and
that's why I compare them, because I think many primates do the same thing.
They watch their mother. They watch the older chimpanzees in the group, they
watch them do things, and after a couple of years they can do the same

O'BRIEN: So do you get the sense that -- perhaps this isn't the case for
you, but that most of us are way underestimating what animals are capable

WAAL: I think so. I think we have a tendency to say we are cultural beings,
we have left nature behind -- which, of course, is nonsense -- we cannot
leave nature behind -- and that animals are stuck in nature, they are stuck
with their instincts. But that's not the case at all.

O'BRIEN: So what, then, is the lesson for us?

WAAL: The lesson for us is that the divide between culture and nature that
we have created is completely artificial. It doesn't exist for us, really,
because there's continuity between the two, and it doesn't exist for other

O'BRIEN: So we are much closer to the primates than we'd like to think,
perhaps, on a day to day basis?

WAAL: Oh, I think so.

O'BRIEN: Is there anything wrong with that?

WAAL: No. I think we are primates so, yeah, it's logical to think like that.

O'BRIEN: All right, Frans De Waal, who is at Emory University and is out
with a fascinating new book, "The Ape and the Sushi Master," which is
available, by the way, if you go to the Emory Web page,

WAAL: Yeah, thank you.

O'BRIEN: We appreciate it.

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