What is culture?
What is culture? Many people would perhaps define it as something to do with art, language, politics and other traditions which are unique to human societies.
Therefore it may seem odd to talk about culture in non-human animals. Indeed, many people would argue that culture, which is inherently so deeply intertwined with language, morality and institutions, could not possibly be attributed to animals other than ourselves. At the other extreme, there are some people who believe that culture exists in thousands of species. Biologists Charles Lumsden and Edward Wilson would argue that even some species of bacteria engage in something that can be deemed cultural.
Let’s take a step back. In order to debate whether (non-human) animals have culture, we first have to agree on a definition of what “culture” actually is. I like this definition by Laland and Hoppitt (2003):
“Culture are those group-typical behaviour patterns shared by members of a community that rely on socially learned and transmitted information”.
If we use this definition, it becomes clear from looking at the research that some animals certainly do engage in behaviours that can be deemed cultural.
How do we study “culture?”
Studying cultural learning in non-human animals involves looking at learning and imitation, as well as other fairly complex social learning mechanisms. It may involve placing a “naive” individual into a group whose members express a behaviour which is unique to that group. The experimenters will then look to see if this new individual picks up the “cultural traditions” of this new group, rather than sticking with what it knows. Culture experiments often involve introducing a new behaviour into a group of individuals, and the spread (or otherwise) of the innovation is tracked and documented.
There is strong experimental evidence to suggest that some bird, whale and fish species have “culture”. HOLD ON. Something’s not right here. WHERE ARE THE PRIMATES? After all, they are our closest evolutionary relatives. How can fish with their tiny brains and their big fat massive distance from humans be said to have culture and primates do not?! TIS AN INSULT TO CULTURE! But the hard experimental evidence for culture in primates is just not there yet, for several reasons. Firstly, it is both much easier and cheaper to experimentally manipulate the environment of fish and birds than that of primates, which is often necessary to do when studying culture. Secondly, scientists are lacking effective methods of studying evidence of primate culture in the wild. Ultimately, the best evidence for culture is found in species that are easiest to study using experimental manipulation. Studying cultural learning in primates in the same way as we do in fish or birds would prove to be not only costly, but would be regarded as highly unethical because of the type of manipulation that must occur. However, there have been a few famous studies which appear to show culture in primates, and I shall describe them here, and explain why the results must be interpreted with caution.
Imo (not to be confused with IMO, my opinions are staying out of this) the Japanese Macaque and her potato-washing innovation
One of the best-known studies of animal culture is that of a Japanese macaque called Imo (below)
Imo’s troop were being observed by a group of Japanese scientists during the 1950s and 1960s. The researchers began to spread food out for the macaques, including sweet potatoes, in order to lure the primates out into the open to allow for easier observation. One day, Imo washed her sweet potato in the sea before eating it. Researchers had never seen another macaque doing this before. Soon after, others in the troop were also washing their sweet potatoes. A CULTURAL TRADITION HAD SPREAD! Imo was hailed as a genius innovator for coming up with such a novel behaviour. With hindsight, it is now generally accepted in the scientific community that this was perhaps not strictly true. It turns out that food washing is actually a stable behaviour in macaques. Imo’s innovation was just to use this washing behaviour with a novel food that had been provided by the human researchers- the sweet potato. There is also no evidence that the potato-washing behaviour spread through Imo’s troop through imitation or teaching or another relatively sophisticated mechanism usually associated with social or cultural learning.
Ant-dipping in chimpanzees
Another widely-cited example of evidence for culture in primates is the study of ant-dipping in chimpanzees. Chimps often use sticks as tools to reach ants in order to eat them. At Gombe, Tanzania, the chimps insert a long wand into the nests, withdraw, and run their stick through their hand, then transferring the ants from their hand to their mouth.
At another site, the Tai forest, the chimps use a short stick that is pulled directly into the mouth. The question is, why do these chimpanzees use different techniques, when sticks of both lengths are available at both sites? It is tempting to conclude that the difference is one of cultural tradition.
However, it was discovered that chimpanzees at a third site, in Bossou, used both of the above-described techniques. Which technique they used depended on the type of ant they were trying to catch. Some ants were more aggressive, and would swarm up the stick to try to bite the chimp. In such cases, the long stick method was preferred. In other circumstances, the direct stick-to-mouth method was used. This finding suggests that an ecological or environmental explanation cannot be ruled out for the differences in ant-dipping techniques at the two different sites. It may be the case that chimps are individually shaped by insects to use the strategy that results in the fewest bites.
So… Culture in non-human animals?
I don’t want to give you the wrong idea here – I do honestly believe that many animal species have culture and traditions. But I am stressing the point that we need to come up with effective experimental methods which will supply us with the concrete evidence required to convince others that culture is not an exclusively human trait. Of course, we are unboubtedly the most cultural species – we depend on our cultures and traditions to survive. But let’s get off our anthropomorphical high horse – we should not dismiss the strong evidence for cultural learning in fish and birds because they are so distantly related to ourselves and because their brains are relatively small. The study of culture in animals is fascinating in its own right, but studies of other species can also provide us with insights into the mechanisms behind the explosive evolution of human culture.