The Ape and the Sushi Master – Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist – Frans de Waal

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Mama's Last Hug and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, a provocative argument that apes have created their own distinctive cultures

In The Ape and the Sushi Master, eminent primatologist Frans de Waal corrects our arrogant assumption that humans are the only creatures to have made the leap from the natural to the cultural domain. The book's title derives from an analogy de Waal draws between the way behavior is transmitted in ape society and the way sushi-making skills are passed down from sushi master to apprentice. Like the apprentice, young apes watch their group mates at close range, absorbing the methods and lessons of each of their elders' actions. Responses long thought to be instinctive are actually learned behavior, de Waal argues, and constitute ape culture. A delightful mix of intriguing anecdote, rigorous clinical study, adventurous field work, and fascinating speculation, The Ape and the Sushi Master shows that apes are not human caricatures but members of our extended family with their own resourcefulness and dignity.

Review:
To watch apes dressed in human clothing and mimicking human manners--an old standby in films and television shows--can make some human viewers uncomfortable, writes the noted primatologist Frans de Waal. Somehow, by doing so, the apes are crossing some line in the sand, a line that speaks to issues of culture, which humans alone are presumed to have. But culture, in de Waal's estimation, does not mean using an oyster fork properly or attending smart gallery openings. Instead, it "means that knowledge and habits are acquired from others--often, but not always, the older generation." Culture implies communication and social organization, and in this, he notes, humans by no means have a monopoly. A sushi chef learns by acquiring knowledge and habits from more accomplished masters, but so do chimpanzees learn to wash bananas in jungle streams, and so do birds learn to break open mollusks on the rocks below them.Closely examining anthropocentric theories of culture, de Waal counterposes the notion of anthropodenial, "the a priori rejection of shared characteristics between humans and animals when in fact they may exist." He takes issue with "selfish gene" theories of behavior, arguing spiritedly that there are better models for explaining why animals--and humans--do what they do. And, against Aristotle, he argues that humans are not the only political animals, if by politics we mean a social process "determining who gets what, when, and how." What animals and humans clearly share, he concludes, are societies in which stability is an impossibility--an observation that may disappoint utopians, but one that helps explain some of the world's peculiarities.Perhaps no human alive knows more about the great apes than does Frans de Waal. With this book, he ably shows that he knows a great deal about humans, too. Students of biology, culture, and communication will find much food for thought in his pages. --Gregory McNamee

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