When in Gombe...
The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural
Primatology. William McGrew. xiv + 248 pp. Cambridge University
Press, 2004. Cloth, $90; paper, $29.99.
Cultural primatology, the study of how socially learned behavior
varies between different communities of the same nonhuman primate
species, is a hot topic. To a recent spate of articles and books on
the subject, William McGrew, a pioneer in the field, has added
The Cultured Chimpanzee, in which he defines culture as
"the way we do things" and then elaborates on this
definition to illuminate the key features of culture, showing that
it is not exclusively the province of humans.
McGrew and colleagues presented evidence of culture in chimpanzees
more than a quarter of a century ago, but only in recent years has
there been a surge of interest in the cultures of chimpanzees and
other animals, including orangutans, capuchin monkeys and cetaceans.
This apparent fad is actually an excellent illustration of why
McGrew uses the term culture instead of tradition
to describe the behavioral variations seen in primate populations;
many phenomena in humans appear and spread rapidly in less than one
generation, and so are unquestionably cultural without being traditions.
Those unfamiliar with developments in cultural primatology may be
surprised by the defensive tone that pervades the book. Scientists
in certain other closely related disciplines do not take kindly to
use of the term culture with reference to nonhumans. The
first few chapters are clearly a response to this academic
hostility. McGrew peppers the remainder of the book with digs at his
peers in sociocultural anthropology and comparative psychology, who
generally reject claims that nonhuman animals exhibit culture.
(Having dealt with similar antagonism, I must admit that I cackled
gleefully at some of these gibes. Certain psychologists and
anthropologists might not be quite so amused.)
In the hands of a clumsier writer, this combativeness might have
come across as a tedious diatribe or mere grousing, but McGrew makes
his case deftly, and his ideas are intellectually stimulating. He
elegantly describes examples of cultural variations among chimpanzee
communities, such as the distribution of hand-clasp grooming
(wherein two chimpanzees might, for example, groom each other with
their left hands while joining their right hands above their heads)
and of hammer-and-anvil techniques for cracking nuts. Many of these
descriptions are supported by photographs from various field sites.
McGrew's clear and well-reasoned arguments are best presented in the
chapter titled "Lessons from Cultural Primatology," in
which he offers 20 insights as advice to prospective culturologists
wishing to study nonhumans.
My dissatisfactions with the book are few. First and foremost, less
than half the text is devoted to "the way chimpanzees do
things." Only three chapters present the findings on chimpanzee
culture: one on the ethnographic record (which consists of
descriptions of behavioral observations in different communities)
and how it can be assessed, and one each on material culture and
social behavior. Although the latter two are well organized by
function and usefully update McGrew's landmark work Chimpanzee
Material Culture (1992), these core chapters lack the depth
of description and analysis I had hoped to see. The remaining
chapters are dedicated to the definition of culture; the stakes that
various disciplines (anthropology, archaeology, psychology and
zoology) have in the concept of culture; the claims for culture in
creatures other than primates—invertebrates (ants, octopuses),
fish (guppies), birds (songbirds, scrub jays, bower birds,
Caledonian crows) and other mammals (black rats, sea otters and
harbor seals, and of course whales and dolphins, in whom the
evidence for culture is strongest); and the future of cultural primatology.
Second, although The Cultured Chimpanzee is well indexed
and generally well referenced, there were some oversights. McGrew's
review of evidence for culture in species other than Pan
troglodytes is thin, although this is perhaps to be expected,
given the work's title. In addition, he fails to comment on the lack
of data on culture in elephants, social carnivores and other
large-brained, social animals who might be expected to exhibit it.
It is unclear what audience McGrew wished to reach with this book.
Those who oppose the use of the term culture to describe
behavioral variation in nonhumans will be put off by the title and
will probably not choose to avail themselves of the opportunity to
be persuaded by McGrew's arguments. The book is too slim to provide
much in the way of new information for those who study culture in
nonhumans, although McGrew does provide some useful principles and
strategies for this study (such as his caution against applying the
term culture too broadly by including any
behavioral variation or evidence of social learning). His writing is
engaging, and the book provides a pleasant introduction to the topic
for those outside the involved disciplines. Unfortunately, such
readers may be puzzled not only by the aforementioned combativeness
but also by a few technical terms that could have been more clearly explained.
Nearly everything written about nonhuman primates concludes with
predictably dire warnings about their imminent extinction and pleas
for assistance in preventing that tragedy. This book is no
exception, and one of the best reasons to purchase it is that the
profits from its sale will go to conservation efforts in Africa. In
the chapter on primates, McGrew laments the loss of orangutan
habitat at Suaq Balimbing on Sumatra (I studied the culture and tool
use of the orangutan population there until the forest was plundered
by illegal loggers). Then at the end of the book he makes the point
that each similarly lost chimpanzee community represents a cultural
extinction—a poignant finality he could have emphasized more
sharply. As a fellow cultural primatologist and concerned ape, I am
heartbroken at the thought of losing any more primate cultures. We
must cling to the hope that our efforts to document and understand
these beings and their cultures, and to share this research, will
not come too late to save them (see, now I too have concluded with
the usual admonition . . . forgive me, it's part of primatologist culture!).