Do animals have cultures?
Can nonhuman animals develop different cultures in their own societies? Let's look at it.
Culture is a construction that starts from shared life and takes the form of "collective" and purposeful acts. and is established in the form of "collective" and purposeful acts. In general, it begins to be acquired in early childhood at the hands of parents, but will continue to expand throughout adulthood in different contexts. It endows individuals who share time and space with an essential sense of uniqueness, while at the same time underlining distances from outsiders.
For many years it was thought that culture was an exclusively human property, requiring the support of a highly complex nervous system that could only be found in our species. But in recent years hypotheses have emerged that refute this belief, and that the scientific community is beginning to consider.
In this article we will address the question of culture in non-human animals, trying to answer questions that were formulated in Aristotle's time and that slept in the unjust bed of scientific irrelevance until the mid-twentieth century. Thus: do animals have culture? We will explore this topic below.
Can animals have culture?
The issue of culture in animals is one of the most controversial in current science, because of the resonances that its acceptance would have on how we relate to other living beings. It would mean recognizing them as creatures closer to our species than we have ever considered, which would go beyond the simple attribution of culture to animals.This would exceed the simple attribution of basic emotions that most people grant them. It would certainly be an incentive to promote laws to protect their legacy, in the same way as is done with numerous human groups throughout the world.
The difficulties in reaching a conclusion in this regard arise from the lack of definition of the word "culture" itself, since we still lack an epistemological space that protects it and allows us to advance in its understanding (and not only with regard to the human animal). Many of the traditional delimitations excluded in their own formulation everything that escaped the reach of our species, although, as we will see, this vision of culture is not the same as that of the human animal.However, as we will see, this vision is beginning to be questioned in order to include other beings with whom we share the planet. Let us try to go a little deeper into all this.
What do we understand by "animal culture"?
The first studies on animal culture were carried out during the 1940s.Their purpose was to establish whether non-human living beings could "acquire" behaviors as a result of social learning, which could not be explained through instincts. The development of these prospections was not easy, since it struggled against deep convictions coming from religion, for which human beings were designed in the image and likeness of their corresponding God (and to whom, therefore, unique traits in the realm of nature were attributed).
Culture has traditionally been thought of as requiring complex brainsThis has been connected with writing and oral tradition, as well as with the symbolic properties that all these have in the case of human beings. Through its mediation, the reality of the moment could be shared among the individuals of the same group, and even codified verbally to be transmitted to successive generations, strengthening the sense of consistency beyond the limited time that a single subject has to live.
From this perspective, culture would be a uniquely human fact, and what is observed in animals would be no more than a more or less sophisticated mechanism for survival.
The fact that animals do not have communication systems of a complexity comparable to those of humans has led various authors to coin a specific term for them, that of "preculture", through which an explicit distinction is made between the way in which animals communicate and the way in which they communicate. an explicit distinction between the way in which animals and humans construct the traditions that make up their common life, and the way in which they construct the traditions that make up their common life.. On the other hand, there are researchers who postulate an absolute analogy, reconciling animal tradition with human culture and considering them interchangeable phenomena. The debate on this question remains open and unresolved.
Most of the work carried out so far is oriented towards what is known as imitative (or vicarious) learning, which requires the observation of a behavior and its subsequent reproduction, albeit for obvious and tangible purposes. In any case, it would be necessary that such patterns cannot be explained by trial and error (the latter are much slower to consolidate in the basic behavioral repertoire) or by survival instinct (biology). At the same time, they should be deployed in a group (the same group in which they initially burst), and not reproduced spontaneously in others.
In addition to imitation, also received attention the culture acquired by teaching and language in animals.. Both involve the use of certain symbolic capacities that have so far only been described in humans, so that their evidence has only been testimonial in contexts outside their own. Symbolization allows the human animal to accumulate a very abundant culture at the intergenerational level, as well as its progressive enrichment and persistence over the years.
In field studies aimed at evaluating this aspect (coming from a discipline that has been coined as "Animal Culture"), it has been observed that the most common thing is that a single individual performs behaviors spontaneously (acting as a social model), and that with the passage of time they spread to his relatives and to the whole community. Those cases in which the impact of such learning exceeds the primary group and reaches different subjects, with whom there is no kinship relationship, are considered cultural.
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Almost all the work developed so far has focused on chimpanzees, because of their evolutionary proximity to humans and because they are one of the few species in which an intention aimed at deliberately teaching something has been described. Likewise, cetaceans and birds have been shown to possess a more complex language than was believed just a few decades ago, and have also attracted the interest of many scholars in the disciplines involved in understanding the phenomenon. Let us look at some examples for each of these cases.
Chimpanzees were the first animals in which the possible presence of a culture as such was studied, and to this day they continue to be the ones that accumulate the most evidence on this point. These animals coexist in very complex societies, in which an evident hierarchy can be appreciated, and it has been possible to verify how behaviors it has been possible to verify how behaviors that started from a single individual (in the form of exemplary acts) spread to the group as a whole progressively in a progressive way, without being explained by the action of biology.
Among primates, culture is understood as the use of tools, such as rocks or sticks. The most studied have occurred in great ape groups in arid environments, which learned to use thin, flexible sticks for the extraction and ingestion of termites that would otherwise be inaccessible. Such learning is also accompanied by the exact procedure through which to carry out this action, which requires a specific rotation of the utensil. It is believed that this way of collecting arises as a result of social learning, and that it has been culturally perpetuated by imitation of younger specimens.
This exact mechanism could explain other habits described in chimpanzees, such as the washing of fruits before eating them.. Some field work has observed how certain hygienic/prophylactic habits have been transmitted both horizontally (between contemporaries) and vertically (between different generations) in very particular parts of the world, related both to feeding (washing food on riverbanks, e.g.) and grooming (lifting a partner's arms to wash armpits, e.g.).
In spite of this, there are doubts about how humans have been able to contribute with their influence to these acquisitions, since they are much more common in captivity (perhaps due to the involuntary reinforcement of these behaviors, for example).
Among apes, it has been shown that they make deliberate attempts to teach other members of the group what has been learned through experienceThis is especially in the form of warnings aimed at dissuading the younger ones from accessing areas that are considered dangerous, or to avoid attacking animals that are perceived as natural predators. Today it is known that this type of learning extends far beyond the immediate environment, being shared over time with the direct descendants of those who once acquired it from their parents (forming a "shared narrative" about what is appropriate and what is not within a particular ecological framework).
Cetaceans are mammals adapted to a marine life, although it is known that in their origin they roamed the land. They have been, without doubt, the animal group that has received the most attention (together with primates) concerning a possible common culture. The orcas, whales and dolphins stand out; all of them creditors of great intelligenceThe most outstanding are orcas, whales and dolphins, all of them creditors of a great intelligence, which includes the option of communicating through sounds (high or low pitched) that have meaning for the rest of the members of the group.
In these animals it has been considered culture, for example, the differential use of vocal tone in different groups, which allows them to recognize themselves as part of a larger group and to protect themselves in the event of an invader entering their territory. It is an imitation that, effectively, has the objective of increasing survival; and that supposes in the end a behavior that is transmitted between generations and allows the identification of families or pods.
It is also known that killer whales show their young how to hunt, through strategies that include group and individual offense. In such a case, it has been described that females (adult and older) teach their calves to teach their calves to deliberately beach themselves on the shore, to better access some of the prey that spend a lot of time on the beach.. This is a behavior that is accessed by learning, and that is never acquired by orcas in captivity or raised in isolation.
Birds are the third most studied group, after primates and cetaceans, in terms of culture. More specifically, it has been observed that some birds living in specific areas (parks, for example) acquire the basic habits to benefit from these environments: going to places where it is possible to obtain food (such as the vicinity of terraces where people deposit their waste) or even opening containers.
Thus, it has been seen that certain birds manipulate the feeders of poultry in order to access their appetizing contents, and that such behavior is subsequently dispersed among the rest of the birds living in the vicinity.
The animal species included in the psittaciformes family (especially parrots living in America, Africa, Asia and Oceania) have been considered as beings endowed with an extraordinary intelligence. It is known that they imitate very well the sounds they can hear, and in the case of human speech, there is evidence that they not only reproduce it, but also make use of it with clear communicative intent (choosing the right words according to their needs). (choosing the appropriate words according to their needs).
When parrots learn a large number of words, they can construct new ones using the grammatical rules of the language (even if they are not real terms or accepted by social consensus). When they are useful to their purposes, they can "teach" them to other birds with which they share space (in case they are united by a quality bond), becoming a behavior that goes beyond social learning and is usually conceived as a form of culture that deserves to be studied.
- Galef, B. (2009). The Question of Animal Culture. Human Nature, 3, 157-178.
- Laland, K., Kendal, J. and Kendal, R. (2009). Animal culture: Problems and solutions. The Question of Animal Culture. 174-197.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)