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Me vs. Us, Part 1: The Evolution of Kinji Imanishi

There's an old story about a beggar who had been sitting by the side of a road for over thirty years. One day a stranger walked by.

"Spare some change?" mumbled the beggar, mechanically holding out his hat.

"I have nothing to give," said the stranger. "But may I ask, what's that you're sitting on?"

"Nothing," replied the beggar. "Just an old box. I've been sitting on it for as long as I can remember."

"Have you ever looked inside?" asked the stranger?

"No," said the beggar. "What would be the point? There's nothing in there."

Have a look," insisted the stranger.

The beggar managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with treasure.

Welcome to the Turtle Tree Library. At the end of the previous post, I introduced an important word in Chinese Medicine: balance. If you haven't yet read that post, you probably should, since it will help you make sense of what I'm going to talk about next. It's about a secret hidden inside Chinese Medicine's name.

Next I'm going to drop a short, two-part miniseries into the blog. It's meant to be an application of the concept of balance and will focus on a modern, cultural crisis with deadly (maybe even extinction-level) consequences. I'll examine the crisis through the lens of the work of two strangers - a biologist and an activist. With their stories, I hope they will do for Americans what the stranger in the story did for the beggar sitting on the box.

Part 1: Imanishi

Three years after the Second World War, Kinji Imanishi was studying wild Japanese monkeys off the coast of Japan. He was 46 years old with kind eyes and a knowing smirk; a mountaineer with a thirst for natural environments. He was an unpaid lecturer at Kyoto University, where his work had caught the interest of a small group of zoology students who preferred to follow him over some of the more established professors.

His was a unique style of field research - that is, he observed monkeys in their natural habitat, starting with individual recognition then provisioning (offering food) in order to habituate the monkeys to the presence of humans. Thus, he and his team were able to observe the monkeys' behavior at close range for years. Imanishi's style would eventually become the gold standard for field research on non-human primates, and he would be hailed as one of the founders of Japanese primatology.

The particular focus of his life's work was the evolution of whole societies of species, and he stood in opposition to the idea that evolution was driven by individuals. This was a radical stance, especially when you consider that the idea he opposed was Charles Darwin's.

As a PhD student, Imanishi studied mayfly species in Japan's Kamo River, where he discovered a kind of niche segregation - each species occupied a niche environment characterized by a particular rate of river flow. And he was struck by one thing in particular: the different species appeared to coexist harmoniously.

Evolutionary theory at the time - based, as it was, in Darwinism - couldn't really explain this finding. Darwin held that all species of organisms evolved from common ancestry through the process of natural selection, which involved competition amongst individuals in the struggle for survival. On the point of common ancestry, Imanishi agreed, but after the mayfly discovery, he began to wonder if Darwin's views on nature were altogether too harsh. Where Darwin saw competition, Imanishi saw coexistence, and he developed a theory in which species, or species-societies, choose their own habitats and determine the character of individuals.

The English paleontologist, Lambert Beverly Halstead, described Imanishi's perspective in the journal Nature in 1985: "Imanishi's views certainly do represent different cultural values. He sees the group and not the individual as of fundamental importance in evolution, he does not see struggle in nature but rather the underlying harmony."

Halstead was not the only scholar to view the difference between Darwin and Imanishi as cultural. Harry Triandis, a pioneer of cross-cultural psychology who helped define ideas of individualism and collectivism in cultural studies, wrote that, for Darwin, the individual was the "obvious unit of analysis" in evolutionary research because Darwin was from England, an individualist culture. Imanishi used whole species because he was from the collectivist nation of Japan.

In his lectures, Imanishi often criticized the West, particularly its individualism. To him, it created conditions - competition, struggle, separation - that were unfavorable from an evolutionary perspective. The research of Harry Triandis and some of his colleagues seems to support that view. Their studies linked individualism - especially U.S. individualism - to high levels of emotional stress, physical and mental illness, and several forms of social pathology including crime, suicide, divorce, and child abuse.

In collectivist cultures, conversely, they observed that more and better quality social support made it easier for individuals to cope with unpleasant life events and avoid stress. Since stress is widely considered to be precursor of disease, their findings have been used to explain relatively low levels of chronic disease that have been found in many collectivist cultures. For example, heart attack rates are significantly lower in Japan compared to the U.S., a gap that has narrowed rapidly as Japan has become more individualistic.

And there's the story of Stuart Wolf, a physician who, in the 1950s, came upon a town in rural Pennsylvania where the death rate from heart disease in men over sixty-five was roughly half that of the United States as a whole, and the death rate from all causes was down thirty to thirty-five percent. The town was Roseto, an Italian immigrant village that had managed to isolate itself and preserve the strong social structures of its homeland. After exhaustive study, Wolf found Rosetan's collectivist behavior - and not their genetics, diet, or exercise - to be the determinant of their superior fitness.

Harry Triandis considered the individualism-collectivism dimension to be "the most significant cultural difference between cultures." It involves critical, unstated assumptions - about whether the needs of the group or the self should be emphasized, the importance of duty and public service, and willingness to cooperate with and consider the views of others - that have great bearing on the success of a society, particularly in areas of public health and welfare.

Consider how the U.S., which scores highest of all countries on the individualism end of the scale, has struggled to implement measures that control the spread of coronavirus - such as masking and social distancing. In numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, the U.S. ranks highest in the world. One wonders if Americans have suffered unduly because of their individualism. This is a testable research question, and an interesting one, especially now that the countries with the second and third highest numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths are the collectivist nations of India and Brazil.

Does U.S. individualism render Americans unfit? I imagine that Imanishi would have said yes. He echoed the views of the Russian historian and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin (another collectivist who stood in opposition to Darwinism), who believed that the notion of "survival of the fittest" supported cooperation rather than competition, because the "fittest" was typically a community of individuals working together.

Imanishi's and Kropotkin's visions took great hold of their people. Halstead wrote: "[I]t would not be unreasonable to say that in Japan the average intelligent layman's understanding of evolution stems in great measure from the writings and innumerable interviews given by Imanishi."

Halstead himself, however, along with much of the scientific profession, thought Imanishi's version of evolution was only a dream. It's largely ignored in the complex and competition-driven modern world, except on occasions when some hope is needed.

Right now - amidst disease, death, violence, division, and inequity - sure seems like one of those occasions. Let's remember Imanishi and the idea that our species' best chance for survival lies with groups of individuals working together.

But that's not the whole message of Imanishi's story. It's only half. We need to find the balance. The truth is, much of the time, groups are wrong, and individuals must oppose collective trends and use the best information available and their own judgement to reach a favorable outcome. Isn't that the paradox of Imanishi? Imanishi was an individualist, disagreeably so.


More in a couple weeks in Part 2 of this miniseries, "Disagreeable Greta".


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