Expanding the multicultural debate Essay
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The authors use three specific examples to substantiate their arguments – first, the habit of the Japanese macaques to wash sweet potatoes; second, how an infant chimpanzee learns the American Sign Language from its mother; and third, the utilization of tools by wild chimpanzees. Primatologists in Japan found an unusual behavior that originated in a female Japanese macaque and was imitated by others in her troop in a short while. This female, known as Imo, began to wash sweet potatoes in the river before eating it.
Soon she began to hold the potato in the stream of water with one hand and scrub it with the other hand. This novel behavior spread among the members of the troop in a very specific pattern. It was observed that young monkeys learned a new behavior faster than adult monkeys. It was also seen that female moneys learned a skill or habit faster than male monkeys, the reason for this pattern being that females have a greater tendency to stay within a group and participate in kin transmission of knowledge.
A culture of washing sweet potatoes was thus transmitted from mother to child across a whole troop of macaques.
Scientists in the United States of America studied the acquisition of the American Sign Language (ASL) by chimpanzees. Washoe was a chimpanzee raised since its birth as an ordinary American middle class child by a pair of foster parents who spoke with her and between each other only in ASL. By the time she was 51 months old she had an entire repertoire of signs to answer questions like what, who, how, when, whey, where, etc. The same experiment was repeated with four other chimpanzees and similar results were obtained with them.
After Washoe moved to a lab she raised a baby chimpanzee named Loulis. Washoe taught Loulis ASL. His vocabulary comprised of 51 signs by the time he was 73 months old. Use of basic tools to crack open nuts and fruits has been observed in the chimpanzees living in West Africa. Those reared in captivity also showed this skill. When a group of chimpanzees who did not know to use anvil-like and hammer-like tools, were placed with three others who did know how to use stones as tools. It was found that this particular skill spread rapidly among the chimpanzees.
The young ones learned it faster than adults and females learned it faster than the males. It was also found that those chimpanzees motivated by others in the group to use stone tools learned the skill better than those chimpanzees that lacked motivation. The author concludes that non-human primates are cultural beings even though they do not speak a language. He says that ‘animals’ and ‘humans’ are not different in principle. Charles Darwin placed human beings alongside animals to indicate the continuity of species.
Therefore, says the author, there must be a radical revision in the manner in which animals are ethically treated and that they must be dealt with using the same moral principles that human beings use in dealing with other human beings. There are many evidences that both support and oppose the claim that non-human primates are cultural beings who entail the same treatment as human beings on an ethical level. The main focus of the supporting evidence has been on how primates learn new behaviors and skills. They learn by observation, instruction, social conflict, and group learning (Poirier & Hussey, 1982).
While human beings also learn behaviors and skills in a similar manner, they are said to be set apart by the fact that they are still learning, and therefore differ from primates on an evolutionary basis (Farb, 1978). In other words, natural selection has decided the optimum amount of learning required by primates to survive in the wild. Innovation and learning have much to do with the evolution of the primate brain (Reader & Laland, 2001). Increased brain size did influence the learning skills of primates and their ability to innovate. Yet, the reverse is also possible.
The evolution of the primate brain has depended on their ability to learn in various ways. It was not only greater brain size that allowed primates to acquire technical knowledge, but technology also enhanced brain evolution (Whiten and Byrne, 1997). Another argument goes that human beings are more adapted to culture compared to other species (Tomasello, 1999). Cultural adaptations might have started when children began to articulate new linguistic symbols. This must have set in place an entirely different cognitive apparatus compared to that of non-human primates (Tomasello, 1999).
Language as an indicator of culture has been studied extensively (Cheney & Seyfarth, 1996). It is understood that many species of monkey posses language skills that might be considered to be precursors of human language. Vervet monkeys are known to communicate in signs comprising of a semantic structure (Seyfath et al, 1980). In this respect they can be considered to have a linguistic culture like human beings do. Culture has been defined in many ways. This definition of culture can be applied only to human beings, “”Culture …
is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other ca- pabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor, 1871). According to this definition culture is a domain of human beings (Holloway, 1969). While human beings and non-human primates both learn different skills and behaviors, they differ in the manner in which that experience is organized. Social structure alone cannot be used to say that non-human primates and human beings are both cultural species because all species have a social structure of some sort or the other.
Human beings differ from other species in their ability to create arbitrary and abstract rules that shape social relations in manner than transcends all biological ties. Other criteria such as the ability of primates to resolve conflicts have been used to show that primates are not all too different from human beings (Greenberg et al, 2000). Yet this resolution comes with a clause. Aggression is common in social groups such as non-human primates. Chimpanzees are known to live in peace in their groups but are easily provoked into aggressive behavior (Goodall, 1986). Reconciliation usually occurs when an older member of the tribe intervenes.
Some scientists define what elements must be used to specify culture – labels, signals, skills and symbols (van Schaik et al, 2003). According to a study done on orangutans and chimpanzees, it was found that only human beings possessed all the foul cultural elements, that is, the labels which signify preferences and ability to recognize food or predators and do not require much innovation; signals to social transmit messages particularly of group value; skills that entail technology and innovation; and symbols that were more sophisticated signals that became characteristic of a group.
Orangutans and chimpanzees possess only the first three elements. Culture is a very abstract term when used to describe phenomenon that cannot be quantifies such as the ability to create art and sculptures and literature that are quite characteristic of the life and times of the creator. In an evolutionary and biological system where skills and semantics are measured, non-human primates can be considered to be cultured but when the cognitive functions are observed, culture appears to be truly the domain of human beings. References: Farb, P. (1978). Humankind. New York: Bantam
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