On Patterned Interactions and
Culture in Great Apes
Barbara J. King
Daughter: I wanted to find out if I could think two thoughts at the same
time. So I thought “It’s summer” and I thought “It’s winter.” And then I
tried to think the two thoughts together.
D: But I found I wasn’t having two thoughts. I was only having one
thought about having two thoughts.
F: Sure, that’s just it. You can’t mix thoughts, you can only combine them.
And in the end, that means you can’t count them. Because counting is
really only adding things together. And you mostly can’t do that.
D: Then really do we only have one big thought which has lots of
branches—lots and lots and lots of branches?
F: Yes, I think so. I don’t know. Anyhow I think that is a clearer way of
saying it. I mean it’s clearer than talking about bits of knowledge and
trying to count them.
—Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind
During the summer of 1999, worldwide media attention was focused on the question of whether nonhuman animals, particularly nonhuman primates, have culture. The journalistic frenzy was spurred by a report claiming that in free-ranging chimpanzees, “39 different behaviour patterns, including tool usage, grooming and courtship behaviours, are customary or habitual in some communities but are absent in others where ecological explanations have been discounted” (Whiten et al. 1999: 682).