The noble savage. It took the near-ruination of the environment for man to realise he was not separate from nature, but part of it. Will Self probes the animal origins of human culture

The Ape and the Sushi Master: cultural reflections by a primatologist

Frans de Waal <em>Allen Lane

This apparently simple book uses the Trojan horse of accessible, lucid prose to smuggle into the reader's mind important, if not profound, insights into the human condition. There is no aspect of the debates on nature versus nurture, or genotypic versus phenotypic natural selection, or dualism versus monism, that Frans de Waal doesn't touch on. Without resorting to jargon or wilful obfuscation of any kind, he moulds stale oppositions into novel and useful forms.

The title refers to the practice whereby apprentice sushi-makers are trained by observing the masters of the art for three full years, during which time they are allowed neither to try it out for themselves, nor to ask questions. But when the time comes for the apprentice to assemble the fish slivers and rice wads, he (and it is invariably a man) will do so with consummate ease. Effective imitation is not only extremely difficult, but is practised by other higher primates besides humankind. After all, without imitation, there would be no PG Tips adverts.

De Waal demonstrates that there is no necessity for the use of symbolism in teaching, as imitation will suffice, and that where we can speak of social learning (the acquisition of habits that would not have occurred in isolation), which contributes to the survival of the individual, we can say that it represents a form of culture. By this definition, other animals besides humans have escaped from the surly bonds of mere instinct, and their survival may be predicated not simply on innate fitness, but on an acquired exercise regime.

Edward Wilson, in his influential work Consilience, offered - as de Waal puts it - "a Darwinian embrace to the social sciences" through building an "interdisciplinary bridge" from biology to the social sciences. De Waal's aim is to begin building from the other side, using his experience as a world expert on primate behaviour to encourage social scientists to "reconsider their own domain - often defined in opposition to biology - and see how widely it applies".

De Waal is by no means the first scientist with a background in ethology to try to effect an integration of the different ways of studying animal and human behaviour. The discovery of the anthropoid apes of Africa by the primate philosophes of Enlightenment Europe was a kind of anti-human-supremacist time bomb, thrown into the debating chamber. Carolus Linnaeus classified humans along with the monkeys and the apes in 1758, and notably placed the chimpanzee higher on the "Chain of Being" than the Hottentot. Some have postulated the ape as the true model for Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "noble savage", rather than the so-called "primitive" humans who were being encountered by occidental imperialists at the same time.

Aristotelian monism - which views human social and political life as deriving from the natural impulses we share with other animals - has remained as a conceptual undercurrent. But before Darwin exploded into the popular consciousness in the west, the dissent of man was registered as much satirically - by the likes of Swift - as scientifically. De Waal cites the compound individual "Darwistotle" (the invention of the American political scientist Larry Arnhart) to express the concordance of Aristotle's views with contemporary evolutionary biology.

It was in the 20th century that convergence began to take place with a vengeance. The theoretical writings of Konrad Lorenz and the experimental observation of Niko Tinbergen were crucial, for instance, in driving new pathways through the conceptual cul-de-sac of classical behaviourism. But de Waal, rightly, looks to oriental primatology for the paradigm of the new life science, and resurrects Kinji Imanishi as its conceptual architect. Imanishi was as influential a populariser of science in his own era as Stephen J Gould is today, as well as being an inter- disciplinary polymath. Interestingly, Imanishi - a close contemporary of Lorenz - was prey to a variant of the same tendency that condemned his occi-dental counterpart to semi-obscurity.

Imanishi, like Lor-enz, believed in a form of "species level identity", which controlled the individual. For Lorenz, this took the form of a concept of species preservation (Arterhaltung), which implied that individuals maintained certain characteristics - such as aggression - for the good of the entire species; for Imanishi, the "species level identity" allowed individuals to exist harmoniously with related species. Both theories were trounced by the rise of sociobiology, with its emphasis on the individual as the unit on which selection pressures operate.

Lorenz had a darker preoccupation with collective behaviour at the species level. He thought it could - and should - be applied to humans (his fellow-travelling with the Nazis is well documented here as elsewhere). But it is surely not fanciful to suggest that both thinkers' emphasis on the group bore some relation to the collective upheavals of wartime that they witnessed.

Imanishi's profound contribution to primatology was to recognise that a form of anthropomorphism (the ascription of human characteristics to animals) was not inimical to the field study of monkeys and apes. In fact, it was essential. De Waal locates the Japanese willingness to breach the taboo against inter-species identification in the Buddhist and Confucian world-view. Whatever the wellspring, the reality is that, by the time Louis Leakey sent Jane Good-all et al to study the great apes, in the belief that these animals could inform us about the earliest stages of human evolution, the most useful techniques had already been developed by the Japanese.

Tool use, group loyalty, the propagation of an incest taboo - these were all aspects of chimpanzee behaviour that the Japanese (and now the western) primatology community came to accept as forms of "culture". Yet the baleful effects of an anthropomorphic emotionalism (save the ickle foxie before the socially deprived child), together with a good old-fashioned Prometheanism (thinking up newfangled ways to exploit the environment), have prevented the full implications of animal culture from sinking in.

Just one of the book's many strengths is de Waal's ability to unite telling observations from the research literature with wider theoretical arguments. For a Dutchman, he is also acute in unravelling the semantic incongruities and confusions that underlie such contemporary shibboleths as "the selfish gene". For example, while everyone should comprehend that the selfish gene is a metaphor, Richard Dawkins's perspective on evolution implicitly denies the survival value of culturally acquired, altruistic traits.

In a sense, such is the convergence now between the thinking of anthropologists, ethologists, psychologists, biologists and even social scientists (de Waal himself has written a book called Chimpanzee Politics and, in this work, he comes down strongly on the idea that all higher primates may innately be Liberal Democrats) that it is hard to escape the conclusion that each phase of human development gets the life science it implies. There may be a form of dialectics at work here, which means that the society of post- industrial environmental ruination may also, necessarily, be the demesne of Darwistotle. After all, when everything was going well with the industrial exploitation of the environment, we had no time - as a species - for views that placed us firmly within it. Now that we are rendering other species extinct by the hour, thinkers such as de Waal are trying to find a way back to balance and harmony.

But, this critical observation aside, I can firmly enjoin anyone who is interested in disentangling the conceptual snarl of nature versus nurture to subject themselves to the fine toothcomb of de Waal - and then, once that's done, allow him to re-plait it into a comely new thought style.

Will Self's novel How the Dead Live is now available in paperback (Penguin, £6.99)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?