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Not as Alone as We Think

When laypeople think of culture, it’s generally in terms of the art produced by a group of people (Paris has a lot of culture) or a group’s social behaviours (teen culture, geek culture). When anthropologists think of culture, they use both those meanings at the same time. Culture in an anthropological sense is “the customs, civilization, and achievements of a particular time or people” (my Canadian Oxford dictionary), “An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning” (Wikipedia), and “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group” (also Wikipedia). The ‘social learning’ of that second definition means that culture is transmitted between people and especially between generations. No transmission? It’s not a culture.

When I think of anthropological cultures, I think of stone tools, pottery, buildings, clothing, body modification and adornment, weapons, burial rituals, music, taboos, and social structures—the kinds of things you can dig up, extrapolate from existing artifacts, or document in indigenous cultures. There’s more than this, of course, but these are what get reported in pop science magazines and introductions to anthropology, including children’s books and the class I took in university. It’s hard to draw a line over how many behaviours, like using rocks to open seed pods or putting furs on your back when it’s cold, qualify as a formal culture, but the widest possible definition—one transmitted behaviour is culture—means that humans have had culture for a very long time. Tool use has been documented in hominids as early as 2.5-2.6 million years ago although there’s debate over which hominids made them. Neanderthals had weapons, buried their dead, painted their bodies, and constructed shelters. This wide definition is the one I’m going with here, because at the very least, one cultural behaviour is the beginning of culture.

You see, culture isn’t unique to the Homo genus and its ancestors, although H. sapiens sapiens seems to have taken it the furthest. Chimpanzees, our closest living relative, use tools, including termite sticks and spears. They have a vocabulary of gestures. They have a rigid hierarchy, patrol their borders, form alliances, and start wars. Of course, some of that may be purely instinctive, but where does the line get drawn? Is the human tendency to back up a friend in a fight culture or instinct?

As for other primates: Gorillas also have a social order. A group of Japanese snow monkeys wash their food (link to Youtube). Gorillas, orangutans, and capuchin monkeys use tools. (More examples at the Wikipedia articles.) Notably, orangutan tool use varies by geographical region, suggesting cultural transmission rather than innate knowledge. Chimpanzees have been observed learning tool-making techniques. Of course, tool use is generally seen as an indicator of intelligence, which is accurate, but the facts of population variance and learned behaviours also point towards present culture(s).

Using tools is actually one of the main ways we see cultural behaviour in animals. Dolphins have been seen teaching offspring to push sponges as a foraging tool. One species of Indonesian octopus uses shells and coconuts for protection. Sea otters use rocks to crack open shellfish (Youtube). Elephants will use bark to save drinking water, sticks to swat flies, and rocks to get past electric fences. And of course, birds, especially corvids such as ravens, crows, and jays, and perching birds such as finches and nuthatches, use tools—most often a twig or piece of bark to retrieve insects. New Caledonian Crows are particularly interesting, because they’ll adapt tools for new uses, then pass the knowledge to the rest of their group.

Other evidence for animal cultures include: learned foraging behaviour and evasion tactics in parrots, death rituals in elephants, and the recently discovered adoption of new mating songs in humpback whales. Whales, dolphins, and elephants also have social structures.

It’s hard to say, of course, if any of these behaviours, even if they’re passed on or widespread in populations, are signs of a culture. They may be instinct. They may be evidence of how culture evolved, while not being culture themselves—especially when a species displays only one or two behaviours. They may fall more under biology or psychology than under anthropology. And of course, I’m only an armchair anthropologist. I don’t have nearly enough training to argue definitively in any of the cases I’ve mentioned. But I ask:

  • If these are signs of non-human cultures, could there be signs that we haven’t noticed yet, signs we haven’t realized are signs, and deeper cultural traditions than we’re aware of? What might they be? What species?
  • Alternatively, what if these animal behaviours are signs of cultures evolving as we speak? If we left the animals alone for thousands or millions of years, would they develop civilizations as we did?
  • What if Douglas Adams was right about dolphins and mice having advanced cultures? And/or alien origins? What if he was wrong about them, but crows or octopuses had cultures equal to those of humans?
  • There’s a movement to give the great apes human rights. Could proving conclusively that they had a culture advance the cause? How would having apes as equal citizens change things? If apes get rights, what other species will?
  • All the animals I’ve mentioned are highly intelligent. Some can learn human language. Some have theory of mind. Many are capable of spontaneous problem solving. Does intelligence beget culture? Does culture beget intelligence? Do they evolve simultaneously? Or is there no correlation at all?