Frans de Waal
The Ape and the Sushi Master
Because genetic language ('a gene for x') plays into the hands of our sound-bite culture, we always need to add the warning thatm by themselves, genes are like seeds dropped onto the pavement: in themselves they are powerless to produce anything. When scientists say that a trait is inherited, all they mean is that part of its variability is due to genetic factors. That the environment usually explains at least as much tends to be forgotten.
As Hans Kummer, a Swiss primatologist, remarked years ago, to try to determine how much of a trait is produced by genes and how much by the environment is as useless as asking whether the drum sounds that we hear in the distance are made by the percussionist or his instrument. On the other hand, if we pick up a changed drum sound, we can legitimately ask whether the difference is due to another drummer or another drum. This is the only sort of question science addresses when it looks into genes versus the environment.
Culture is an environment that we create ourselves. For this reason, and quite contrary to the accepted view in some circles, culture does not deserve equal footing with nature. An entire generation of anthropologists has given this false impression by asking whether it is culture or nature that makes us act in a certain way. Natural selection, however, has produced our species, including our cultural abilities. Culture is part of human nature. To say that 'man is made by culture,' as many textbooks still do, is at the same level of accuracy as saying that 'the river follows its bed.' While true, the river also shapes its bed: the current river's flow is the product of the past river's action. In the same way, culture cannot exist apart from human nature, and there is profound circularity in saying that we are the product of culture if culture is the product of us.
The relation between nature and culture reminds me of themouse and the elephant walking side by side over a wooden bridge. Above the noise, the mouse shouts: 'Hey, listen to us stamping together!' At the dawn of an undoubtedly Darwinian millennium, there are still those who claim that human behavior is mainly or entirely cultural. I see this exclusive focus like the mouse with delusions of grandeur walking next to human nature, the elephant who sets the tone of everything we do and are.
This is not to say that culture is mere icing on the cake, as some have suggested. Culture is an extremely powerful modifier—affecting everything we do and are, penetrating the core of human existence—but it can work only in conjunction with human nature. Culture takes human nature and bends it this way or that way, careful not to break it. That we have trouble looking through the false dichotomy is due to a peculiar uncertainty principle: we are unable to take off our cultural lenses, and hence can only guess at how the world would look without them. That is why we cannot discuss animal culture without seriously reflecting on our own culture and the possible blind spots it creates. Seemingly simple questions such as 'Is there culture in nature?' and 'Is there nature in culture?' cannot be answered without reflection on our own place in nature, a place that is culturally denned. I am not playing with words here. The only reason this sounds confusing is that we have been coaxed into treating nature and culture as opposites rather than closely intertwined.