In 1952, when European ethologists still worked on instinct theories and American behaviorists still trained rats to press levers, [Kinji] Imanishi wrote a little book that criticized the view of animals as mindless automatons. He inserted an imaginary debate between a wasp, a monkey, an evolutionist and a layman, in which the possibility was raised that animals other than ourselves might have culture. The proposed definition of culture was simple: if individuals learn from one another, their behavior may, over time, become different from that in other groups, thus creating a characteristic culture. Soon thereafter, his students demonstrated that the potato washing started by a juvenile female monkey on Koshima Island spread to other members of her troop. The troop had developed a potato washing culture. [Photo, taken by the author, shows Japanese macaques on Koshima Island are still washing potatoes half a century later.]
Plato’s “great chain of being”, which places humans above all other animals, is absent from Eastern philosophy. In most Eastern belief systems, the human soul can reincarnate in many shapes and forms, so all living things are spiritually connected. A man can become a fish and a fish can become God. The fact that primates, our closest animal relatives, are native to many Eastern countries, has only helped to strengthen this belief in the interconnectedness of life. Unlike European fables, which are populated with ravens, rabbits, foxes and the like, Eastern folk tales and poetry are laced with references to gibbons and monkeys. The three wise men, or magi, of the Bible are matched in the East by the three wise macaques of Tendai Buddhism (of “See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil” fame). [Photo shows the three wise monkeys in a carving at the Toshogu Shrine.]
Feeling humility towards animals affects the way we study them. If we believe the soul can move from monkey to human and back, there are no grounds for resisting the idea that we are historically connected. So, it’s hardly surprising that evolution was never controversial in the East: it was a logical and welcome thought. As Itani put it, “Japanese culture does not emphasize the difference between people and animals and so is relatively free from the spell of anti-anthropomorphism”.