Posted by: patenttranslator | April 14, 2010

What Is Culture?

What Is Culture?

What Is Culture (文化とはなにか?) was the title of one of the first Japanese articles that I was able to understand, with a lot of help from my teacher. Her name was Keiko Haneda (Haneda-san), and I was a third year student of Japanese at Charles University in Prague in the summer of 1978. The article described some experiments devised by Japanese scientists on a tiny island inhabited by monkeys off the coast of Japan. There were no other humans on the island, only a group of nosy scientists who were observing the monkeys, trying to figure out the rules of the monkey “culture”, if there is such a thing, and how this “culture” would differ from the human “culture” (if there is such a thing, as Gandhi might add). I still remember the perverse pleasure I felt when for the first time, I was able to absorb information describing a scientific experiment in the Japanese language. It was exhilarating. Maybe one of the reasons I decided to become a technical translator on a different continent 10 years later was the lingering memory of that moment.

The monkeys on that little island had a limited menu because the island was so tiny. One of the things they liked to eat was sweet Japanese potato called “imo” in Japanese, which is similar to what is called “yam” here in North America. If you ever tried yam, you might have found its taste pleasant but somewhat bland as I did. And apparently, so did the monkeys. One of the female monkeys designed her own experiment. Or maybe she was trying to get the Japanese scientists to notice her, one never knows with females. She started hitting the imo against a rock to split it open and then she dipped it for a while in seawater. Then she took a bite … and she was pleased with her new meal. Soon other females learned the recipe for the salted potato meal from her, males learned it then from females and all of the monkey babies learned it from adults, so that the second generation did not have to learn it any more from any other monkey – they all knew how to prepare the meal.

And the article ended with the question: “Is this what culture really means?”

We were taught in school that Homo sapiens evolved some four hundred thousand years ago from a certain species of monkeys, and this particular type of animal then evolved further to become human. The human culture is now very different from the monkey culture. Monkeys are mostly satisfied with small inventions, like salted potato. As long as they have enough food and no big animals are trying kill them, they are mostly perfectly happy in their monkey culture.

The human culture, on the other hand, is much more complex. We have books, religions, trains, cars, planes, Internet, ideology, money. Most importantly, we have really sophisticated weapons, not just big sticks like some stupid monkeys. We have made so much progress since we started walking on our hind legs!

We can blow up the whole planet Earth if we want to. One of these days, we may just do it. It is not very likely that we will be satisfied with putting some seawater on our potato like some dumb monkeys on a tiny island.

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