The Teaching Gene

J.Z. Young

  • The Evolution of Culture in Animals by John Tyler Bonner
    Princeton, 216 pp, £8.10, May 1980, ISBN 0 691 08250 2

It is a pleasure to write about a book that is so well-written. John Tyler Bonner is a biologist who not only knows a great deal about plants and animals but has thought long and carefully about problems of evolution. He has a cool and judicious attitude that allows him to settle contentious questions without fuss. For example, in order to show that ‘there is no need to be tyrannised by words,’ he makes fun of anthropologists who object to the use of such words as ‘slaves’ or ‘castes’ in describing colonies of ants, because it may imply that if these practices are natural to them they are legitimate also for us. The biologist thinks that both the similarities and the differences are so obvious that it is convenient to use the words and ‘unnecessary to drag in all the possible political, psychological, or strictly human nuances’. This question of the use of words is important for Bonner because he proposes to use the word ‘culture’ to cover a great variety of living activities.

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