Culturally challenged

Science - Colin Tudge says Jeremy Paxman may be a smarty-pants, but he is also ignorant

Radio 4's Start the Week: Jeremy Paxman is giving the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal a hard time. De Waal is in Britain to plug The Ape and the Sushi Master, in which he probes the animal origins of human culture. "Choof!" says Paxman. "It just depends on how you define culture." There, the conversation founders. De Waal, the successor to the great Niko Tinbergen, is one of the most significant thinkers of our age. Paxman read "arts" at Cambridge; he is a clever fellow, a fully paid-up smarty-pants. But he prompts me yet again to wonder how and why Britain's most exalted universities manage to turn out, at such egregious expense, people who are so closed-minded and, in the end, so badly educated.

Paxman was trained in the school of Humpty Dumpty, and "culture", he says, can mean anything you want it to. It could, for example, refer simply to the sum total of non-essentials. But "non-essentials" are hard to pin down. Skylarks may sing as blithely as Shelley suggested - but they do so to attract mates; and Geoffrey Miller argues, in The Mating Mind, that even the finest of human arts have similar origins. More to the point, says de Waal, is that culture should not be defined by its content. Its essence is the spreading of ideas, from the innovator to his or her peers and offspring, and so on into future generations until two different societies of the same kind of creature are behaving in quite distinct ways. Even wolves and sheep evolve their own modi operandi of the kind known as "traditions". But many primates innovate and copy on a grand scale, so that two chimp groups, for example, though both true to chimp-dom, may run their affairs quite differently. The differences, by any sensible definition, are cultural.

Why is Paxman, like most westerners, so averse to animal parallels? The Old Testament got us off to a bad start with the notion that we alone are in "God's image" and that all other creatures are for our convenience. The Enlightenment deepened the rift, with Descartes concluding that speech is essential for thought, and that, ergo, animals cannot think and, ergo, they are automatons, like the clockwork mannequins that were so popular in his own day. Yet behind this cavalier philosophising lies something close to neurosis - conceit, but also fear of our animal selves. Eastern philosophies, in general, have no such reservations, says de Waal. The realisation that individual monkeys and apes have very different characters - personalities - which influence the fate of their entire groups emanates from the great Japanese primatologist Kinji Imanishi. Until Jane Goodall came along, western scientists missed this completely.

The belief that animals are automatons has sanctioned the appalling cruelties of the laboratory and the factory farm. Animal conservation suffers as well: many non-biologists write off those who take it seriously as "bunny-huggers". By misconstruing animals, we miss huge opportunities to learn about ourselves. Biologists now agree that Descartes was wrong: animals do think; and, by asking how they do so even without speech, we learn about the true nature of thought - vital to therapists, educationists and surely to all of us. It is clear, too, to those who realise that science has advanced since the days of Herbert Spencer, that the ideas of evolution offer insight into human emotions, our relations to each other, the roots of morality, and why nasty people such as Slobodan Milosevic get to be in charge of nice people. These kinds of insight are gained in large measure through the studies of biologists, such as de Waal, who look at animals.

More broadly, the Enlightenment conceit that humans live on an elevated plane has led people to treat all nature as a tabula rasa, a stage on which to act out any fantasy. Notably, agriculture now does most to shape landscape and to determine the fate of all living creatures, and so is a giant and endlessly intricate exercise in ecology. But ecologists hardly get a look-in. Agriculture is run by "agriculturalists", who are either technologists or economists, or "arts-trained" people who, like Paxman, are brought up to believe that nature is raw material that we can mould as we please (with the help of hired hands known as "boffins"). The biological dimension is lacking, and the result is as we see: cruelty, erosion, pollution, loss of wildlife.

Broadest of all, anyone with an inkling of palaeontology knows that this earth can take many forms, with ice or tropics pole to pole; that change can come quickly; and that, when it does, entire suites of creatures disappear. Anyone even half aware must see that the pending greenhouse effect is the greatest single threat of our age, and that George W Bush is mentally bereft, or deranged, or just plain wicked. But although most people don't like him, he gets away with it. Intelligent people who are not wicked should be up in arms, but modern-day education has sapped their brains. Like Paxman, they just cannot bring themselves to believe that the conceits of mere biologists should be taken seriously.

"Education, education, education," said Tony Blair, and by God he was right. And let a hundred flowers bloom: long may the ancient universities do their own things. But the world is a serious place and, whatever else they may do, serious places of education really ought to teach things that matter. Because they do not, we now have people in power and shaping public opinions who, for all their portentousness and abrasiveness, are effete: whether bright like Paxman or daft like Bush, they have been systematically divorced from reality. That's a pity, and it is dangerous.