Monday, July 22, 2002

CULTURAL BIAS IN CHIMPANZEE STUDIES

Science gets a dose of culture shock
As a pioneering Japanese study on chimpanzees showed, how we approach science is not free from our cultural perspective, says FRANS DE WAAL

MOST people now accept that fields like politics and journalism reflect and perpetuate cultural bias. Yet we imagine science as free of unexamined cultural assumptions....

In 1958, when Mr Imanishi and his students toured the US to report their findings, they were ridiculed for humanising their subjects and for believing that they could distinguish between all those apes.

The Western view of apes regarded them as akin to Rousseau's 'noble savage' - autonomous individuals, devoid of social ties and obligations, driven by instinct to swing haphazardly from one fruit tree to the next.

But while Jane Goodall was describing female chimpanzees and their dependent offspring as the only socially bonded units in the primate world, a Japanese team, working only 130 km away, proved eventually that chimpanzees live in large communities with stable memberships.

We now know that chimpanzee society is male-bonded, and there is ample evidence of territorial warfare between communities.

The initial discovery arose from the assumption that chimpanzees, so close in evolution to humans, could not be as 'individualistic' as Western science supposed.

The same initial assumption led Mr Imanishi in 1952 to suggest that animals might have culture, which he reduced to its lowest common denominator: the social rather than genetic transmission of behaviour.....

(Frans de Waal is a professor of psychology and director of the Living Links Center at Emory University. Copyright: Project Syndicate)