Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
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Saturday, July 2, 2016

An Exploration of Animal Culture By Yassine Nassiri

Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology For High School Students
Pic © Adapt & Design.com
Culture in its modern anthropological denotation was first expounded by Edward Burnett Tylor in his two-volume treatise Primitive Culture in 1871. He avers in re the significance of the term, distinguishing himself from his predecessors, those are inter alia Cicero and Immanuel Kant who viewed culture as a form of individual enlightenment: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” (Tylor, 1874) Hereof, culture is observed as the set of human traits, attributes and behaviours (memes, employing Richard Dawkins’ term) that are transmitted socially rather than biologically from antecedents to descendants. Wherefore, Taylor’s approach tackles culture as artificial and as antinomian to natural foundations, i.e. in a biological framework, opposing acquired knowledge or enculturation versus innate knowledge or instinct.

Recent researches in the field of ethology and primatology have shed light on the concept of animal culture (Galef, 1992). Insomuch as there are manifold interpretations and comprehensions of the notion of culture within the literature, the subject remains hitherto moot and much vexed. Nonetheless, for matters of cohesiveness, the existence of animal culture will be considered hereto as definite. Herein, with the assumption that animals do possess culture, i.e. an independent set of information that is acquired socially, humans and the North American river otters will be compared in the necessity to extract cognitive and behavioural similarities, e.g. mores concerning courting and mating rituals, to evince the existence of culture within the aforementioned non-human animal species. Nonetheless, before tackling the exercise, let us define animal culture and substantiate its definition and existence with the support of the literature.

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Animal culture laid ground from an evolutionary perspective to the emergence of human culture in its fully fledged consistence as known nowadays (Laland, 2008). Whilst it is much disputed with anthologists and linguists regarding culture as the outcome of an enrichment process associated with humans’ superior cognitive capabilities, biologists regard culture as an adaptive process enabling the species’ subsistence and continuation whereon the process of culture is governed by the laws of evolution by natural selection (Laland, 2008). For instance, upon a perturbation in the environment, including biotic and abiotic factors, e.g. the intromission of a competitor in terms of resources, a species could alter its realized niche to optimize its respective obtainment/acquisition of sustenance, whereby its subsistence. Yet, inasmuch as the fundamental niche is substantially regulated by genetic forces (with the plausible influence of phenotypic actors), the realized ecological niche, evinced by certain dietary preferences and prey-predator behaviours inter alia, can be revamped. Hereto, a behavioral change is observed and, upon transmission to progeny, can be viewed as culture and extensively animal culture whereas an advantageous preference is transmitted, with maladaptive memes neglected. 

Pic ©  Mark Heringer
Now, supposing a population dispersal, individuals from a species that once had such and such mores and fads may due to environmental constriction modify their conduct, leading to after a significant time elapse to speciation, i.e. in the given situation allopatric speciation. Here, we have defined the two primary ways, excluding conditional learning and artificial insertion (newborn of species A inserted in population of species B) that enable biologist to establish and substantiate animal culture by behavioral change (Boesch, 2011). Namely, there is the behavioral and clinal (in a more general manner) comparison between two or more populations and furthermore the behavioral comparison of the same population of a species between two or more different time values.

Pic © Arup Shah
Truly, it is through the first described path that biologists and more specifically primatologists came up with the idea of animal culture, which is relatively recent. For instance, two neighboring populations of chimpanzees were studied in the Mahale Mountains of Tanzania in 1968, labelled the K-Group and the M-Group, and, although exchanges were observed between the two parapetric populations, the former shared dissimilar behavioral approaches and communicative mediums (gestural) (Boesch, 2011). And perhaps, this is conspicuous and well documented in humans were manifold cultures with distinctive attributes ranging from salutation rituals, to dietary habits to spoken dialects or languages exist within close geographical areas, with India as a particularly representative example. Furthermore, akin to humans, assimilation or acculturation, i.e. the absorption of a “foreign” culture, was observed within ape populations such as in the aforementioned situation and with vervet monkeys completely adopting the behaviours of their hosts (Hurtley, 2013).
Whilst the manifestation of culture and cultural change were deciphered within non-human animal species, another component of the definition must be considered, animal culture being the transmission of memes between progenitors and offspring in its “proto-human culture” significance, and that is the transmission and propagation of memes which partitions off what is innate and what is acquired, chiefly from an individual perspective. Transmission of Culture stricto sensu, e.g. fads and behaviours, has been found in a population of chimpanzees to occur between high-ranked members of a group, specified by their age as “age is a proxy for skill/knowledge/success; the longer someone has lived, the more and better skills/knowledge he/she has likely accumulated” (Henrich & Gil-White; EMJ, 2010), and lower or relatively inexperienced members. Chiefly, the lower members adopted novel behaviours after observing the elders, which in a microscopic scale corresponds to the traditional conveyance in tribal societies. 

Pic © Julia Watkins
Often, maladaptive traits were adopted as a result of prestige bias, which is undoubtedly a social construct, rather than an innate property (Richerson & Boyd; Unknown, 2010). Yet, as asserted by Victoria Horner (EMJ, 2010), natural selection may have opted for genetic attributes preconizing the cognitive attitudes of social learning by imitation. Subsequently, extending her viewpoint, culture is not solely an adaptive process governed by the laws of evolution by natural selection, but also an evolutionary outcome. Insomuch as the argument seems circular, it is valid to the extent that culture is an evolutionary innovation allowing species, through acquisition of built knowledge or traditional behaviors, to adapt themselves and furthermore perpetuate. In other words, it is an adaptation to adapt (Laland, 2008). 

Sage Grouse
Pic © Antpitta.com
The interesting corollaries of culture is the plausible co-evolution of these learned behaviors with gene-based traits, culture acting as a phenotypic actor. Hereto, it was observed in bird populations that the practiced birdsongs, although not originally pertaining to the concerned species, had an influence on the alleles and extensively the genes, whether active or passive, regulating song acquisition and preference. Furthermore and for instance, mate-choice copying fads as reported on female lekking sage grouse using social information rather than unbiased sexual selection (the healthiest and the fittest) to decide with whom to mate will eventuate in the impoverishment of the population as weaker alleles will be indirectly selected, the allele frequency of the most adapted (fitter) alleles decreasing, i.e. in biological terms negative selection (Laland, 2008). In the same vein, it can be asserted that all mating patterns are behavioral and extensively cultural.

Pic © FineArtAmerica.com
North American river otters (Lontra Canadensis) have a peculiar social structure. Whilst no data was found in re the behavioral distinctions between existing populations, species of the same genus will be scrutinized. In community of otters with genus Lontra i.e. river otters, male and female, separate, have distinct hierarchy. The male otters with greater territorial areas and the females with the largest progeny pool are on top of their respective ladders. While river otters are sexually segregative and groom mostly with the members of their respective genders that excludes the mating seasons, smooth otters (Lontra perspicillata) dwell in nuclear families constituted of an adult male-female pair with their progeny. Spot-necked otters (Lontra Maculicollis) found in East Africa follow a cycle of aggregation and dispersal, with the gender respective groups varying from 6 to 20 in size, with respect to the mating season. A comparison can be established with humans, and specifically from members extensively of the Western culture, in its Levantine and Greco-Roman heritage, where nuclear families were and are a norm (SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment,  2005).

Pic © MyAnimalBlog.info
From orangutans making leaf dolls or using tools as sexual stimulants to bonobos’ peculiar sexual behaviours to populations of chimpanzees possessing distinct gestural signals (Laland, 2008), the notion of animal culture is indisputable in biological terms, yet unequivocal. While orangutans or bonobos’ mores may be deemed instinctive, insomuch as those habits are encoded in the form of nitrogen-rich base-pairs sequences within their karyotype, they can also be viewed as traditional behaviours acquired by imitation, i.e. the notion of culture. Yet, animal culture can be substantiated by the comparison of two populations of the same species sharing unalike mores or a population altering its fads and behaviours with respect to time. 

Pic © lynnetteshelley.com
Ergo, if animals possessed solely instinctual behaviours administered by their genetic composition, the observable differences, tributary merely of the environment as a phenotypic actor, would be inconsequential and scant. Yet, recent work in primatology display the opposite and hence, corroborate a form of characteristic acquired behaviour overlaying the instinctive behaviour, ensuing from experimentation and cognition that can be defined as animal culture. These acquired behaviour or animal culture can be viewed extensively as an evolutionary outcome and an adaptation enabling non-human and human animal species to adapt. A consistent example of this is the fundamental ecological niches (instinctive likings and attributes) of certain species being molded accordingly for optimal subsistence into realized ecological niches, behavioural adaptations or preferably culture. Transmittance of animal culture follows the same path as human culture in its anthropological dimension that is through education or learning by imitation as for human newborns, and through authoritarian or structural conveyance, seen macroscopically in tribes.


Boesch, C. (2011). From material to symbolic cultures: Culture in primates. The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology, 1-23.

EMJ. (2010). Anthropology, Primatology, and the Definition of Culture: Reply to Sperber. ScienceBlogs.com.

Galef, B. G. (1992). The Question of Animal Culture. (M. University, Ed.) Human Nature, 3(2), 157-158.

Hurtley, S. (2013, April 26). Animal Culture. Science Magazine, 340, p. 405.

Laland, K. N. (2008, May 6). Animal cultures. Current Biology, 18(9), pp. 366-370.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. (2005). Otters. Animal InfoBooks. SeaWorld Incorporated.

Tylor, E. B. (1874). Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art and customs (Vol. 1).

University of Michigan. (2003, May 22). Lontra Canadensis: Northern River Otter. Animal Diversity.org.

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