Animal culture

Animal culture describes the current theory of cultural learning in non-human animals through socially transmitted behaviors. The question as to the existence of culture in non-human societies has been a contentious subject for decades, much due to the inexistence of a concise definition for culture. However, many leading scientists agree on culture being defined as a process, rather than an end product. This process, most agree, involves the social transmittance of a novel behavior, both among peers and between generations.[1] This behavior is shared by a group of animals, but not necessarily between separate groups of the same species.

The notion of culture in animals dates back to Aristotle and Darwin, but the association of animals’ actions with the actual word “culture” first was brought forward with Japanese primatologists‘ discoveries of socially transmitted food behaviors in the 1940s

Other researchers are currently exploring the idea that there is a connection between cultural sociology and psychology. Certain individuals are especially concerned with the analysis of studies connecting “identity, collective memory, social classification, logics of action, and framing.”[4] Views of what exactly culture is has been changing due to the recent convergence of sociological and psychological thought on the subject. “Recent work depicts culture as fragmented across groups and inconsistent across its manifestations. The view of culture as values that diffuse other aspects of belief, intention, and collective life has succumbed to one of culture as complex rule-like structures that constitute resources that can be put to strategic use.”[4] Culture is specific to region and not just one umbrella definition or concept can truly give us the essence of what culture is. Also referenced is the importance of symbols and rituals as cognitive building blocks for a psychological concept shared culture.

Culture, which was once thought of as a uniquely human trait, is now firmly established as a common trait among animals and is not merely a set of related behaviors passed on by genetic transmission as some have argued. Genetic transmission, like cultural transmission, is a means of passing behavioral traits from one individual to another. The main difference is that genetic transmission is the transfer of behavioral traits from one individual to another through genes which are transferred to an organism from its parents during the fertilization of the egg. As can be seen, genetic transmission can only occur once during the lifetime of an organism.[12] Thus, genetic transmission is quite slow compared to the relative speed of cultural transmission. In cultural transmission, behavioral information is passed through means of verbal, visual, or written methods of teaching. Therefore, in cultural transmission, new behaviors can be learned by many organisms in a matter of days and hours rather than the many years of reproduction it would take for a behavior to spread among organisms in genetic transmission.

The beginning of the modern era of animal culture research in the middle of the 20th century came with the gradual acceptance of the term “culture” in referring to animals. Japan’s leading primatologist of the time, Kinji Imanishi, first used the word with a prefix as the term “pre-culture” in referring to the now infamous potato-washing behavior of Japanese macaques. In 1948, Imanishi and his colleagues began studying macaques across Japan, and began to notice differences among the different groups of primates, both in social patterns and feeding behavior.[20] In one area, paternal care was the social norm, while this behavior was absent elsewhere. One of the groups commonly dug up and ate the tubers and bulbs of several plants, while monkeys from other groups would not even put these in their mouths. Imanishi had reasoned that, “if one defines culture as learned by offspring from parents, then differences in the way of life of members of the same species belonging to different social groups could be attributed to culture.”[20] Following this logic, the differences Imanishi and his colleagues observed among the different groups of macaques may suggest that they had arisen as a part of the groups’ unique cultures. The most famous of these eating behaviors was observed on the island of Koshima, where one young female was observed carrying soiled sweet potatoes to a small stream, where she proceeded to wash off all of the sand and dirt before eating. This behavior was then observed in one of the monkey’s playmates, then her mother and a few other playmates. The potato-washing eventually spread throughout the whole macaque colony, encouraging Imanishi to refer to the behavior as “pre-culture,” explaining that, “we must not overestimate the situation and say that ‘monkeys have culture’ and then confuse it with human culture.”[2] At this point, most of the observed behaviors in animals, like those observed by Imanishi, were related to survival in some way.


Until recently, teaching[13] was a skill that was thought to be uniquely human.[14] Now, as research has increased into the transmission of culture in animals, the role of teaching among animal groups has become apparent. Teaching is not merely limited to mammals either. Many insects, for example have been observed demonstrating various forms of teaching in order to obtain food. Ants, for example, will guide each other to food sources through a process called “tandem running,” in which an ant will guide a companion ant to a source of food.[15] It has been suggested that the “pupil” ant is able to learn this route in order to obtain food in the future or teach the route to other ants.[15] There have been various recent studies that show that cetaceans are able to transmit culture through teaching as well. Killer whales are known to “intentionally beach” themselves in order to catch and eat pinnipeds who are breeding on the shore.[16] Mother killer whales teach their young to catch pinnipeds by pushing them onto the shore and encouraging them to attack and eat the prey.[16] Because the mother killer whale is altering her behavior in order to help her offspring learn to catch prey, this is evidence of teaching and cultural learning.[16]The intentional beaching of the killer whales, along with other cetacean behaviors such as the variations of songs among humpback whales and the sponging technique used by the bottlenose dolphin to obtain food, provide substantial support for the idea of cetacean cultural transmission.[16]


Memes and cultural transmission

Richard Dawkins argues for the existence of a “unit of cultural transmission” called a meme. This concept of memes has become much more accepted as more extensive research has been done into cultural behaviors. Much as one can inherit genes from each parent, it is suggested that individuals acquire memes through imitating what they observe around them.[5] The more relevant actions (actions that increase ones probability of survival), such as architecture and craftwork are more likely to become prevalent, enabling a culture to form.[5] The idea of memes as following a form of Natural Selection was first presented by Daniel Dennett.[5] It has also been argued by Dennett that memes are responsible for the entirety of human consciousness. He claims that everything that constitutes humanity, such as language and music is a result of memes and the unflinching hold they have on our thought processes.[5]

There was a hypothetical simulation conducted in which a population selects different memes.[6] It shows both the positive and negative side effects of these hypothetical imitations. One of the main disparities between humans and animals is that humans have a much higher capacity for imitation. Also concluded was that the use of memes is responsible for the large brain size of humans.[6] By mapping how long each of these memes will take to become an actual cultural change the conclusion of the study was that it is possible for human culture to have evolved using this model.

Evolutionary culture

A closely related concept to memes is the idea of evolutionary culture. The validity of the concept of evolutionary culture has been increasing recently due to the re-evaluation of the term by anthropologists.[7] The broadening scope of evolution from simple genes to more abstract concepts, such as designs and behaviors makes the idea of evolutionary culture more plausible.[7] Evolutionary culture theory is defined as “a theory of cultural phylogeny.”[7] The idea that all human culture evolved from one main culture has been presented, citing the interconnectedness of languages as one of his examples has also been presented.[8] There is, however, also the possibility for disparate ancestral cultures, in that the cultures we see today may potentially have stemmed from more than one original culture.


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