[monkeywire] Charles McGrath on the culture question

Alexandra Ringe aringe at andante.com
Wed Jan 22 18:17:22 EST 2003


Gone Ape

Anyone who has watched much nature television knows that orangutans are by
far the handsomest and smartest-looking of the great apes. They're literal
highbrows, with wide, soulful eyes and broad expressive foreheads. They're
covered not with bathmat fur, like so many apes, but with what amounts to a
couture pelt -- red hair so long and fine it seems blow-dried. It's true
that orangutans drag their knuckles when they walk, but how else are you
going to get around if your arms are longer than your legs? For creatures so
large, they are uncommonly graceful, not to mention sweet-natured, so it's
gratifying to learn that a team of scientists, writing in the journal
Science, has recently certified them as ''cultured'' as well. Metaphorically
at least, the news makes you want to extend a cheerful hand to your fellow
primate and pump him by his auburn, hirsute paw (it would feel sort of like
angora, I'm guessing).

Culture in this sense is not exactly a museum or concert-hall
accomplishment. It's behavior that's not genetically determined but, rather,
learned by watching others; certain styles of tool use, for example, or
systems of social signaling. The theory is that if animals in one place do
something a certain way, for no particular reason, and the same animals
someplace else do not, then chances are that behavior is cultural, not

In the wild, orangutans tend to be loners, and therefore it was believed
that they lacked a ''system of socially transmitted behavior.'' But after
studying various orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra, the authors of
the Science article concluded that some of them did indeed show signs of
having taught each other stuff. They had learned how to masturbate with
sticks, for example -- male and female alike -- and to make ritual
''raspberry'' noises at bedtime before scaling into their nests. They had
also mastered the art of creating funny sounds by blowing into leaves, and
of catching rides in Robert Frost fashion, by swinging on bent-over tree
snags. This is all it takes -- a few useless but highly amusing tricks -- to
promote you into the highest rank of primates: the elite group that also
includes chimpanzees, most likely bonobos and gorillas and of course us --
the naked apes, to use Desmond Morris's label.

Morris was the British zoologist who in 1967, when most scientists and
philosophers were still trying to draw distinctions between man and beast,
shocked everyone by declaring that Homo sapiens, hairlessness
notwithstanding, was still an ape and thought and behaved like one. ''Behind
the facade of modern city life there is the same old naked ape,'' Morris
wrote. ''Only the names have been changed: for 'hunting' read 'working,' for
'hunting grounds' read 'place of business' . . . for 'pair bond' read
'marriage.' '' Our biggest problem, Morris added, is that man prides himself
on having the biggest brain of all the primates ''but attempts to conceal
the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord this honor
falsely to the mighty gorilla . . . and it is high time we examined his
basic behavior.''

In Morris's analysis, much of that behavior consisted of trying to deal with
the cruel contradictions of pair-bonding and gorillalike hypersexuality. On
one hand, we wanted to retain a single mate, so we became exquisitely and
inventively sensual; we turned the female breasts into substitutes for the
buttocks and figured out how to have frontal intercourse. (This is the
epochal moment memorialized by Rae Dawn Chong and Everett McGill in ''Quest
for Fire,'' the 1981 movie on which Morris served as a consultant.) On the
other hand, we couldn't be going ape (sexually speaking) all the time, so we
had to invent deodorant and the unspoken prohibition against looking people
in the eye on the subway.

Some of Morris's ideas now seem more than a little wacky. (He claimed, for
example, that after orgasm the breast of the female naked ape increases in
size by up to 25 percent.) But Morris gave rise eventually to E.O. Wilson
and sociobiology, and no one doubts for a minute anymore that many of our
social and behavioral traits are rooted in biological and evolutionary
imperatives. We are a lot more animal than we used to think.

In the years since Morris, meanwhile, a number of other scientists have been
working to erase the man-animal distinction from the other end -- to
suggest, for example, that language may not be unique to humans, and that
primates may have culture, something we also believed was uniquely ours.
Considering what we think we've learned about our own natures, though,
what's fascinating about the orangutan discoveries is how little of their
learned behavior has to do with sexual customs (masturbating with sticks
aside) and how much with what amounts to just plain goofing off.

Not all the orangutans' cultural accomplishments were pointless. The
scientists found them using leaves as gloves and as napkins, and wielding
tools to extract seeds and to probe into tree cavities. But the Science
article includes a table rating the behaviors in order of frequency, and at
the top of the list are the branch-riding, the various kinds of noisemaking,
scratching games and building nests just for playing in -- all of which,
when you think of it, have human equivalents. At bedtime we nuzzle our
infant children on the stomach to make the raspberry sound -- that universal
cultural signal, it turns out, at once fond and silly; we teach kids to make
a squeaky noise by blowing on a blade of grass; we throw a bedspread over a
card table so they can play house. To amuse them (and ourselves), we scratch
and mug and sometimes act like complete orangutans. Primates that we are, we
presumably learned long ago that our nature at its most essential consists
of being able to entertain someone, and of being entertained in return.

Charles McGrath is the editor of The New York Times Book Review.

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