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HOME > SCIENTISTS' NIGHTSTAND > Scientists' Nightstand Detail

BOOK REVIEW

When in Gombe...

Michelle Merrill

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.

In a behavioral pattern greatly similar to hand-clasp grooming...Click to Enlarge Image

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!).


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