Do Animals Have Culture?

Apr 19, 2016

Photo credit: iStockphoto

By Adam Frank

Last week, I watched in awe as a river of crows made their way across the evening sky toward their roosts south of my house.

Listening to the cacophony of their cries, I found myself with a simple question — is what I’m seeing just instinct or do these crows have their own culture? In fact, do any animals have culture in the same sense we do?

Being an astrophysicist, I didn’t have the slightest clue about the answer. Lucky for us all, however, I do know somebody who has spent a lot of time studying the problem — 13.7’s own Barbara King, chancellor professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary. Like me, she’s a former resident of the great state of New Jersey. So, I emailed Barbara and the following conversation ensued:

Adam: So, let’s begin with a VERY important question since we are both from New Jersey. What is your favorite Bruce Springsteen album? After that we can get to the less critical issue of whether animals have culture.

Barbara: “Born To Run” came out when I was in college, and that’s when I fell hard for Bruce and the band, so that album will always have a special place in my heart. From student days to retirement now from university teaching, Springsteen’s music has lit up my life always.

Adam: I agree that “Born to Run” is a life altering experience — but I didn’t discover Springsteen ’til high school when “Darkness on the Edge of Town” came out. It totally spoke to my overblown teenage anger and hope about the world. Still, I think my favorite album may be the first “Greetings from Asbury Park.” The storytelling on songs like “Spirit in the Night” has been a constant source of joy even in dark times.

So, as for whether animals have culture — it’s a big topic. Let me narrow it down to ask to if animals create more than “instinct” allows?

Barbara: It’s widely known by now that chimpanzees in West Africa crack open hard-shelled nuts with rock and stone hammers to extract the delicious protein inside, and that chimpanzees in East Africa don’t. These East African chimpanzees COULD do it — they’re smart enough, they have the materials at hand. It’s just not their way.

Similarly, chimpanzees in some places groom each other by clasping hands high above their heads. Others don’t. Why? It’s not in their genes and it’s not determined by their environments. It’s just what these apes learn to do from watching their elders. That’s culture — at least that’s one, arguable definition of culture.


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45 comments on “Do Animals Have Culture?

  • Disappointingly lightweight soundbite. Lazy trivial article, idle space-filler for someone hunting/gathering the column-inches.

    More time spent on Springsteen than anything else. Do New Jersey people have culture? No evidence in this article.

    No mention of birds, apart from the introduction. Nothing to see here, move along…



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  • I knew that “yes” would be the predominant reply. I don’t know for sure. I think it is just too easy to be emotional about this and just say “yes.” If yes, then you are stretching the meaning of the word culture to include all sorts of things that might otherwise not be included. If you stubbornly insist that it can be included than the answer is yes. That’s your truth. What does it mean to say something IS anything? You are choosing to interpret a concept and fashion it in your own image, rather than being precise and scientific in your approach to Concepts and what they have historically signified.

    I am more inclined to say no (and I have my emotional reasons as well); I won’t insist on it. But come on, there is a vast, quantitative difference between the culture of the highest non-human animals and the culture of humans. Listen to the Brahms violin sonata (No.1), if you don’t know what I mean! To that you will say: no, listen to the birds singing, and watch them congregate and interact with each other within a community.

    Quantity changes quality.—Hello?

    Yes, yes…Heard it all before. Rhinos and wolves and crocs have music and philosophy and science and the arts and a very rich culture. (I love animals, by the way. I want you to know that.)

    Is culture. Is not culture. Is. Not. Is.

    No definitions in the post modern age. Anything goes now.

    It’s a species of culture. They have some semblance of it. But there is a vast difference…Well you get my point…

    Soon nothing will mean anything.



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  • Dan #5
    Apr 23, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    It’s a species of culture. They have some semblance of it. But there is a vast difference…

    It comes down to definitions of social relationships rather than purely artistic fashions, although things like the dances and displays of some birds would very closely resemble artistic sexual displays.

    The reason for a definitive YES, is an awareness of complex social relationships and many examples of learned behaviours within local social groupings of animals.

    This is particularly noticeable in Chimps, Bonobos, Capuchins, and Gelada Baboons http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/gelada/



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  • Culture is most manifest in any set of behaviours that one geographically isolated group of a species is different from another isolated group of the same species. These are attributes that cannot be said to reside within the genotype. So Dawkins would say that dam building in beavers resides within the extended phenotype and hence genotype of the beaver. Dam styles however might very much be cultural and therefore regional. Bower bird decoration may be phenotypical but there may be styles passed down generations in local areas. (I actually think this is less likely and variations relate to variation in locally available decorating materials.)

    Cultural attributes require reliable copying of behaviours. These need to be very accurate if they are not to die out. It may be that mirror neurons (most particularly in the young) service this need. Mammals appear to have invented these to support their particular nurturing lifestyles and more intelligent mammals appear to have more of them. This certainly correlates with the frequency of claims of culture. In primates, cultures are thoroughly manifest and documented.



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  • New Caledonian crows make tools to get at food. Basically a piece of a suitable leaf cut to a particular shape. The interesting thing is that across New Caledonia, the details of the shape vary from one region to another. Like an accent, perhaps. The only reasonable explanation for this is that young crows learn from older crows how to shape the tool. This knowledge, fashion, whatever you want to call it is not Instinct, it is culturally transmitted information.

    That’s all that “culture” is, information and invention passed not via the genes, but from one living being to another. Isn’t it? It’s a continuum that leads all the way to violin sonatas, no discontinuity for us to say we have culture but they don’t.



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  • @OHooligan and others

    “It’s a continuum that leads all the way to violin sonatas, no discontinuity for us to say we have culture but they don’t.”

    Spot on, Ohooligan. It’s a continuum. Exactly my point. I said that some animals have a “semblance of culture.” I should have used the word continuum (which I often do), but forgot. That’s the best argument there is.

    But that can be taken too far, and that argument then becomes absurd.—It’s like saying that those first few cells in the womb, shortly after fertilization, are a human being. The culture of crows is to human culture(s) what those cells are to a human being. (Not a bad analogy.) Or you could say that our common ancestors, the earliest primates, were human beings. That would be true if we were to apply your idea of culture as a continuum to species as a continuum. And grey is black and pink is red…

    I do think that one can define culture in other ways than you have. Information and invention passed on from one organism to another? Hmm.

    Do you see my point? We mustn’t allow the meaning of such concepts as Culture (and Language and Art) to be diminished through over-application and misuse. I don’t want to sound rigid but I think we might have more to gain than you think by actually narrowing and limiting these definitions. (Have you noticed that everyone’s an artist now? The word no longer has any meaning.)

    Quantity fundamentally changes quality! Animals have no culture, and no language. (I await a barrage of replies.) They have the rudiments of culture in its germ, at best.



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  • Dan #9
    Apr 25, 2016 at 1:12 am

    I do think that one can define culture in other ways than you have. Information and invention passed on from one organism to another? Hmm.

    Do you see my point? We mustn’t allow the meaning of such concepts as Culture (and Language and Art) to be diminished through over-application and misuse. I don’t want to sound rigid but I think we might have more to gain than you think by actually narrowing and limiting these definitions.

    I think this narrower definition puts far too much emphasis on human cultures, or particular aspects of particular human cultures, to the neglect of social aspects of the cultures, and collective group knowledge, skills and habits, across species in general.

    The problem is, that until recently most people were ignorant of the extensive cultures in social animal populations, and were content with disparaging dismissals of animal cultures to the flattery of human egos.

    Quantity fundamentally changes quality! Animals have no culture, and no language.

    Numerous biological studes show both of these assertions to be wrong.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-28023630
    Researchers say they have translated the meaning of gestures that wild chimpanzees use to communicate.

    They say wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of 66 gestures.

    The scientists discovered this by following and filming communities of chimps in Uganda, and examining more than 5,000 incidents of these meaningful exchanges.

    The research is published in the journal Current Biology.



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  • Dan,

    Why are you so uninterested in the roots of culture? Culture IS mankind’s single achievement- all the arts all the science, all the social inventions, formal justice, formal logic, formal reason. There is no need to defend human culture…its our day job, but the interesting question is where does it come from.

    This is really what this thread is about. That is why we want to know if animals have the capacity for culture.

    Given we hold that things evolve, our question now splits into two or three. What attributes might underlie it that could evolve? Why are we past masters and might that help understand which attributes underlie it?

    We observe that culture is quasi stable, appears to change through time in response to external pressures (resources, climate, external threat), is geographically constrained in specifics etc. etc. The most simple way we understand culture is that it constitutes shared ideas most specifically of value and aesthetics. This change through time suggests that ideas may have an evolutionary process of their own and that in turn suggests that good enough copying of ideas is required.

    Now here is the jump. Ideas are verbal or schematic in some way. Does that mean that grunting Lop-Ear had no culture? “Falling back on pantomime” as Jack London has it is schematic. The bees waggle dance pointing the direction of bounty is schematic. The call of land-threat or sky-threat from meerkats is specific ideation. Skills too are ideas, elaborate ones at that. Where these things are copied and learned and they are geographically specific in their expression within a species, then they are culture.

    The fact that we have discovered the probable mechanism of how skill learning is managed in mammals say may be the the route to the whole of our own cultural explosion. These early examples and details are the most fascinating thing to study.



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  • Dan #5
    Apr 23, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    It’s a species of culture. They have some semblance of it. But there is a vast difference…

    The difference in some instances is not so great.

    I would suggest that there not a lot of difference between Bower Birds building a courting pad and humans decorating rooms to impress.

    Likewise the competitive dances and displays of Birds of Paradise, are not a lot different to humans dressing up to go to the ball or to a disco!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgnOQqLhrlw
    BBC Planet Earth – Birds of Paradise mating dance



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  • @dan
    You remind me of a friend I’ve had many an interesting argument with. He accepts that people are animals, we’re just one of many species evolved from the common ancestry, but he balked at my reverse proposal, that animals are people too.

    Not anthropomorphic people-animals like in The Wind in the Willows, but the actual animals. Within their senses and the ability of their brains, there are animals that have, yes, culture, defined as shared know-how, skills and techniques handed down from generation to generation. Dam building techniques, young beavers learn from their elders, and work on dam maintenance long before they ever set out to start a new one from scratch (if ever they do). Crows learning how to shape the leaf-tool used for getting food. Mating dances, there’s a species of bird where the male has to put on a duet to impress the female, he has an apprentice, who doesn’t get his chance to mate until his master dies, and he takes on an apprentice of his own. The intricate dance is learned, copied, passed down the generations, this time from master to (unrelated) apprentice. There are so many examples of animal behaviour that are not hard-wired in their brains at birth, only the learning ability is there, the rest is taught/learned.

    So it’s human-centric chauvanistic to draw the line at our species only, to say we have culture and others don’t, to say that we are “people” (in the sense people normally, informally, use), and other species are just animals. They are people too, they have enough individual differences to become characters in their own right, anyone close to animals of many kinds gets to know them. Not just primates, but a continuum that includes mammals and birds.

    Don’t worry, I’m not proposing to grant animals some kind of peoples-charter, I won’t be agitating to give them the vote, or whatever other human cultural stuff we do, I don’t suppose they’d be interested anyway. I think maybe they laugh at us sometimes. When we’re not destroying them and their habitat.

    So, Dan, no, I don’t see your point. Or rather, I do see it and reject it. Use Human Culture as your phrase. Human Languages, Human Art. Abbreviate to drop the “Human” in context, but don’t define your words to be so totally Human centric.

    The notion of Humans as something very special, entirely different from all other animals, has been eroded almost completely. What makes us special? Speech? Tool use? Tool making? Culture? Art? (see the bower birds), War? Love?. I’d say — nothing. We’re just one kind of monkey, one kind of people, a bit over-impressed by ourselves. Except, oh, yes, we did get to the moon. And we might spread our genes to the rest of the solar system, and thus survive the next asteroid impact.

    If we don’t let our delusions and our self-centred pride destroy us first.



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  • To all

    Appreciated everything you said, OHooligan, and Phil. (So you did read Before Adam! Not a bad book, huh?)

    I worry about the larger (yet not unrelated) issue: the destruction of aristocracy (natural aristocracy). I am making a point: there is a tendency to seek to obliterate the differences between humans and the other animals. Part of a growing trend. There are incalculable differences among human beings as well – morally, artistically, culturally, and intellectually. The tendency now is too seek to obliterate these differences. That will (or may) have disastrous consequences.

    I believe in the hierarchy of nature. I am also opposed to the exploitation of nature, and understand that we are part of nature, not separate from it.

    Please don’t misconstrue. I also believe in equality of rights and understand the continuum argument, love animals, and am fully aware of man’s depravity and hubris.

    Man is nature’s lord and prince – Kierkegaard

    Man stands the highest in the chain of terrestrial “creations”. -Schopenhauer

    The doctrine of equality! … But there is no more venomous poison in existence: for it appears to be preached by justice itself, when it is actually the end of justice … “Equality to the equal; inequality to the unequal” – that would be true justice speaking: and its corollary, “never make the unequal equal”.
    -Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1888)

    P.S. I hope I don’t sound like a complete ass!



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  • Dan #15
    Apr 25, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Man is nature’s lord and prince – Kierkegaard

    Try telling that to a volcano, a tsunami, a rising tide, an asteroid impact, or a supernova explosion!

    Man stands the highest in the chain of terrestrial “creations”. -Schopenhauer

    These are both claims based on theology from the ages of ignorance.
    The clue is in the word “creations”!

    Evolution does not have any highest or lowest (of whatever is being suggested).
    There are levels of functionality in the context of environments, and levels of complexity, but the rest is the human egotism of self delusion.



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  • “…If we don’t let our delusions and our self-centred pride destroy us first…”

    OHooligan’s point is well taken, but I worry that the words Good and Bad, Better and Worse, are facing extinction. Everything will be of equal value and therefore we will value nothing. A bleak future awaits us if this trend, this leveling, this horror and intolerance of anything even remotely suggestive of the judgment: “this is superior” (a judgment we have every right to form), continues.

    I am all too aware that “superiority” is a dangerous concept. But the growing intolerance of the word, which is giving it a taboo aspect in our culture (no wit or irony intended), is also dangerous.

    Even Dawkins looks down on some cultures. “Oh it’s their culture, can’t say anything bad about it” he often says, with justified contempt and ridicule, when discussing religion.

    Well that’s all I’m saying. I don’t wish to take anything away from the animals. Just don’t know precisely what you guys and the OP mean by culture.

    Culture as defined by the miserable old Oxford dictionary:

    The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively: ’20th century popular culture’



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  • @dan
    I’m watching a lot of nature documentaries at the moment. Especially David Attenborough’s “Life Story”, recommended by Dr Dawkins himself. Watch, and be amazed, delighted, and informed.

    As for some cultures being inferior to others, I reckon the culture of the Fur Seal to be abysmal, and no longer feel the slightest concern about them being exploited for their fur, though it would doubtless be a shame to drive them to extinction. There are artistic birds and fishes, and birds that maintain a lifelong monogamous relationship.

    So the everything-is-equal thing looks to me like another strawman. Nobody said that but you, Dan.

    If there’s any distinct thing about humans, it’s that we’re sufficiently aware (some of us, anyway) to be able to choose what kind of animal culture we prefer. In some lands, the Fur Seal culture seems to be the ideal, and I find it despicable.

    On any rational scale of better-to-worse cultures, some human cultures are decidedly inferior to some animal cultures. Ours are not all the best, and are not so special as to warrant a distinct divide between us and the rest of life on earth. Much of what’s wrong with human cultures lies in the pompous assertion that we’re so Special, we’re better than all other life, and the normal rules don’t apply to us.

    Oxford dictionary needs updating.



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  • Fur seal culture abysmal? A joke? Not very funny.

    I don’t follow. Posted comments are often tone-deaf.

    “So the everything-is-equal thing looks to me like another strawman. Nobody said that but you, Dan.”

    Nobody said that, including me. I never said that everything is of equal value. I referred to that as a process, a tendency. Perhaps a century from now the words better and worse will have little if any meaning. Post modernists tend to express no decided preference for anything; every interpretation is of equal value, every culture, every theory, notion…

    That is a tendency. It has permeated our culture and our language. I sense it. No straw man. Just an observation, a concern. Even here my sensible views on man’s vast intellectual superiority is perceived as “chauvinistic” and “human-centric.” Not too long from now people will be expelled or fired for harboring such loathsome and bigoted views.

    Animals are remarkable and infinitely fascinating and are abused by wretched, insensitive, greedy, and (in some cases) desperate people. I am opposed to that entirely.

    But I detest leveling. It is a growing trend. That is my opinion and my impression, and that’s that.

    I don’t think humans are separate or divided from nature. Never said that. Misread again.

    How do you choose to define culture? Art?

    The monogamy of birds has zero moral or ethical value and the singing of birds is not music to them. It sounds like music to us. There is no art amongst the lower animals. Snakes dance, but this is just instinct, and isn’t really dancing and you know it. It does closely resemble it, but so can a convulsive’s paroxysm. Animals do build and create. That’s instinct. What they create is not really art. No art, no consciousness of creating something aesthetically pleasing. Nothing like that whatsoever. That is anthropomorphism. Can you imagine a bird looking at something and appreciating it on an aesthetic level? You can define art any way you want. I can spit on the floor and call it art. A child can hop on the sand after a stubbed toe and leave a pattern and someone can come along and call it art.

    Animals and humans have much in common and much not in common.

    One more thing: Alan, you said that “evolution has no highest or lowest.” Of course it doesn’t! Evolution has no mind, is not a person or a God. Only we humans can make such judgments.

    Evolution has no highest or lowest and the universe doesn’t care about what we think or perceive – or don’t perceive. Got it.



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  • Dan #19
    Apr 26, 2016 at 6:28 am

    Perhaps a century from now the words better and worse will have little if any meaning.

    They have no meaning now, unless they are related to describing aims, objectives, or functions!

    Post modernists tend to express no decided preference for anything; every interpretation is of equal value, every culture, every theory, notion…

    Post modernists express meaningless pseudo-sophistication, which is “equal” in the sense that it is equally irrelevant to everything!

    Even here my sensible views on man’s vast intellectual superiority is perceived as “chauvinistic” and “human-centric.”

    Intellectual superiority is ONE aspect of humans.
    They are inferior to many animals in so many other aspects!

    Animals do build and create. That’s instinct. What they create is not really art. No art, no consciousness of creating something aesthetically pleasing. Nothing like that whatsoever.

    This is asserted denial indicating a lack of study of animal populations.
    Human behaviours and instincts are NOT mutually exclusive.

    That is anthropomorphism.

    No! Anthropomorphism is projecting human values and attitudes on to animals, not objectively noting parallel aspects of behaviours or matching instincts.

    Can you imagine a bird looking at something and appreciating it on an aesthetic level?

    A lack of imagination or lack of knowledge is no basis for denying animal cultures.

    You can define art any way you want.

    You can, – but if you do, all you do is define culture as human culture or human art, and construct a circular argument around that restricted definition, rather than examining the evidence from animal studies in behavioural. psychology.



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  • Science was crippled for many centuries by the anthropocentric view. From evolution through psychology to philosophy it has been blind-sided by theology and its mental fossil remains and the theological necessity of embiggening its customers before their fleecing.

    The astonishing nature of human achievement simply cannot be ignored. But flatteners down are in the business of ethics and that is simply a different ball game which we can join if we want but that is not the original intention of this thread. The seeming “flattening down” by scientists is of course nothing of the sort but simply trying to rebuild an understanding of life from the bottom up. (It is a scientific observation to note that dogs and other mammals, say, do not have human like characteristics on occasions but we, rather more, have mammal like ones.)

    It is profoundly unhelpful to mix the ethical arguments with the scientific ones. It is crass in the extreme to deny a scientific, bottom up, analysis of things, muddling in ethicists.

    Finally. The display of the bower bird may not be culture if it is does not involve the learning of differing styles of display. It may just be a phenotypical expression mediated by contingent factors. It is, though, ART by a thoroughly arguable definition as a demonstration of reproductive fitness.



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  • Okay, okay. I looked it up, and yes animals do have a certain culture. Sorry. There are a number of different ways of thinking about culture and of defining it, although these are specific definitions and distinct from each other.

    I was a bit rigid. But if this is well established why is the OP asking us to confirm what has already been established? And why is every other article about how animals are so much like us? I still think that snakes do NOT dance and that animals have no art (an anthropomorphic assumption) and no philosophy or science. Maybe in a few hundred million years they will have art, but not now (I don’t think). They do have a certain culture. Yes, yes.

    But why must we level and blend and stretch and squeeze into one big blob, and diminish the achievements of human individuals and cultures amongst us that have achieved great things? I was reacting to what I perceive (and this could be a bit paranoid on my part) to a growing trend.

    “Post modernists express meaningless pseudo-sophistication, which is “equal” in the sense that it is equally irrelevant to everything!” Not what I meant by equal, and an inadequate characterization.

    “..all you do is define culture as human culture or human art, and construct a circular argument around that restricted definition, rather than examining the evidence from animal studies in behavioural. psychology.”

    I had said that one is free to call anything art. I didn’t say that it has to be human art!! So what is animal art then? Define it? Is this not art for us too? Just for them? Why? Art that isn’t art? Sounds post modern. Explain yourself, please.

    Culture in animals
    According to the Webster’s dictionary definition of culture, learning and transmission are the two main components of culture, specifically referencing tool making and the ability to acquire behaviors that will enhance one’s quality of life. Using this definition it is possible to conclude that animals are just as likely to adapt to cultural behaviors as humans.



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  • Dan #23
    Apr 26, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    I had said that one is free to call anything art. I didn’t say that it has to be human art!! So what is animal art then? Define it? Is this not art for us too? Just for them? Why? Art that isn’t art? Sounds post modern. Explain yourself, please.

    [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZFzH3dWsbA](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZFzH3dWsbA

    Romantic Bowerbird Builds Intricate Structures to Seduce Females

    Alternatively it could be pattern in the sand created by fish!

    I provided a link showing bird dance @13. Birds also do song!



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  • Similarly, chimpanzees in some places groom each other by clasping
    hands high above their heads. Others don’t. Why? It’s not in their
    genes and it’s not determined by their environments. It’s just what
    these apes learn to do from watching their elders. That’s culture — at
    least that’s one, arguable definition of culture.

    Being a biologist, it seems to me that “culture” occurs in a social species of animals and is learned behavior that is passed on from one generation to the next by means of learning and conformity.

    Learned behavior cannot be passed on through the generations genetically, however some behavior is primarily genetically determined, dance of the honey bees for example. The fact that they can do a dance that conveys information is genetic, however the distance from the hive and the time of day is leaned. So the capacity to learn, as well as the tendency to conform, is passed on genetically, but what is learned is not passed on to the next generation.

    For humans the capacity to learn and the tendency to conform is genetic, but what we learn is passed on by conforming and teaching the next generation. Such behavior seen in crows or chimps and other social groups of animals may be basically similar.



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  • Hi, CBrown,

    In your professional opinion, do you really think that birds actually sing and that snakes actually dance?

    This is partially a language question; but singing and dancing are, in my opinion, human activities. I’ve seen the Pythons dancing. I’ve heard the birds singing. It makes us feel good to talk in these terms. I am not a scientist but I suspect that there are many scientists who agree with me: they don’t really sing and dance, and they have no conception of art, and no appreciation of art. The highest animals (such as the chimpanzee) may be exceptions.

    But we are making assumptions about animals and confusing metaphor with reality. We might as well say that iron ore sings, in a literal sense!

    “When it is loosened. The hammer-strokes that loosen it are the midnight bell clanging to set it free; and that is why the metal sings–in its own way–for joy.” –Ibsen, John Gabriel Borkman



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  • @dan

    they don’t really sing and dance, and they have no conception of art, and no appreciation of art.

    Funny, that. I could say the same for Rappers and Morris-Dancers, among others. It’s down to how you want to use your words. “Sing” means “Human-sing”, “art” means “human-art”, then I’m sure they – other species – don’t give a damn about our notions of singing , dancing , and art. You draw your line closely around Us, the humans.

    The highest animals (such as the chimpanzee) may be exceptions.

    There’s that hierarchy again. Highest? Really. Most closely related to us, you mean.

    Anyway I think you’ve seen pretty much the whole case laid out quite clearly by now. Enjoy Life Story, I did.



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  • Dan #27
    Apr 27, 2016 at 12:02 am

    But we are making assumptions about animals and confusing metaphor with reality. We might as well say that iron ore sings, in a literal sense!

    “When it is loosened. The hammer-strokes that loosen it are the midnight bell clanging to set it free; and that is why the metal sings–in its own way–for joy.” –

    I have made the point before: –
    You are unlikely to learn any reliable or useful information, from the speculations of philosophers or writers of fiction, who lived before the scientific observation and recording methods were invented, or whose writings and thinking predated the extensive modern studies which have described our modern understanding of wildlife!

    Ibsen, John Gabriel Borkman

    John Gabriel Borkman is the second-to-last play of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, written in 1896.

    At this time, there was no concept of video recordings or systematic objective studies of wildlife behaviours – and certainly not among non-scientists!

    The rudiments of behavioural studies began with Pavlov in 1897, and were not taking the form of science until much later.

    Seeking answers from people who themselves did not know, is never going to be a productive strategy!

    Without understanding detailed studies, only arguments from incredulity remain!



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  • John Gabriel Borkman

    Alan,

    I was just making a point. Come on.

    Here’s something I remember from The Wild Duck. (1884) You might like this more.

    “They are thinning the woods.”
    “Thinning? Nature will get her revenge. ”

    I was dead-wrong about animals not having culture.

    And I don’t want to sound like a mean guy. OHooligan, chimps are not “higher” than rats or crows, i.e., not better or more deserving of compassion or more interesting or more important. I happen to adore turtles, and they are not as smart as dogs or pigs.



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  • it’s a moot point for the great apes. Being the kinds of animals most likely to have identifiable culture. I think they probably need to be alive to have a culture. But most of the great apes are now in a state of pre-extinction, except for 1 notable subspecies. Most apes are so rare that they’re becoming attractive to members of the remaining unendangered apes: like psychopaths, crackpots, opportunistic foragers (equipped with v. cheap AK47s, landmines, and other ammunition), with an attractive spot market price for inclusion as ingredients for traditional ethnic TCM quackery.

    One day it might be possible to regenerate a new generation of organisms from preserved DNA. Presumably TCM market will drive this bio-entrepreneurship. But may first need legal mechanisms to assign monopoly patent rights to resurrected species.) But culture is something that is distributed and transmitted between the minds of live individuals. So it would disappear if population dispersal and demographics dwindles below some critical threshold, even if the genome or phenotype can be recreated. Apparently this already happened once with humans, with the resulting cultural and genetic uniformity bottle neck maybe explaining why they lost contact with reality to became the ubiquitous exterminator species that prevails today. A healthy culture requires diversity, humans seem to have lost this diversity. Compared to other animals all humans have more or less identical cultural and genetic characteristics. Including the relative inability to notice non-human cultures.



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  • @ Bonnie

    Thanks for the link. That fish has a very impressive face, the face of an artist. (It’s unmistakable.) Somewhat tormented and at the same time visionary. A true innovator too, I see. No doubt he was ahead of his or her time.



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  • Phil 33

    To answer your question: Yes (except the consumer part).—But I cannot tell if you are being sarcastic or not. If you are going to be sarcastic be very sarcastic, please. Email messages and posted comments are often tone-deaf.



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  • 36
    bonnie2 says:

    @ #34

    How droll; I do get what you’ve been toiling to exert per homo sapiens compared to other animals.

    Elephant + paintbrush + canvas = art?



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  • 37
    Cairsley says:

    Where does ART come from? Whence the artist? Whence the consumer?

    Very interesting questions, Phil.

    Some here have no doubt read it, but a book I would recommend on this topic is The Art Instinct (2009) by Denis Dutton. As the blurb on the back cover of my copy of the book says, “Denis Dutton argues that art is a universal human instinct, part of our evolutionary heritage. … he draws on Darwin, Pinker, and Miller as well as Aristotle and Kant; and reflects on the emotional intensity sculpted into the Baule mask, the sublime experience of listening to Mozart, and the irony of Duchamp’s urinal.” I for one thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it very instructive and insightful.

    Pax et bonum.



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  • Dan #35

    Not in the least sarcastic…

    Its quite OK to say you’re not interested in the question, say, anywhere near as you are interested in the art itself, or whatever.

    I think its a deeply fascinating question myself and that’s why I approach this stuff as I do. Does hunter gatherer self decoration have the same initial evolutionary driver as a peacock tail? Why does a display of squandered energy/wealth/time (same thing) get the ladies (and occasionally gents) horny? Does “wealth” still equate to reproductive opportunity?

    Has art evolved? Yes but, fascinatingly, (I contend it has become also a psychological experiment we perform on ourselves to understand ourselves and self model), but, I also contend much of its initial raison d’etre remains.

    Why do people consume/appreciate/ seek out art? Is it like an itch that needs to be scratched?

    Thanks for the Dutton, Cairsley. I’ll check it out. I would throw in here also something on aesthetics (a very important concept for me.) Starting with Vilyanur Ramachandran’s hypotheses, when I find a link.



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  • Phil, I am interested and said I was. I’m so used to people ridiculing me. (Poor me). Sorry.

    Have a good day.

    Cairsley, that sounds like an instructive book. I will check it out too. I wonder about the “universal instinct” part, however. The vast majority of people don’t have an artistic bone in their body. (Then again, I haven’t read it yet, and should suspend judgment). There must be quite a bit about the hippocampus in there.



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  • 40
    Cairsley says:

    To Dan #39

    I wonder about the “universal instinct” part, however.

    The quoted phrase was “universal human instinct”, which means an instinct belonging to all humans (similar to the language instinct). It may be the case that “[t]he vast majority of people don’t have an artistic bone in their body” in the colloquial sense in which such a statement might be made, but that is not to say that those same artistic-bone-lacking people are not active and responsive in their lives and interactions according to the evolved predispositions that give rise to art in all human cultures. You will be pleased to know that the author, the late Denis Dutton, was not a neuroscientist or any other kind of scientist but a professor of aesthetics and the philosophy of art, yet he recognized the basis that art necessarily has in evolutionary biology. The argument of the book is quite complicated and most of the evidence for it is drawn from Dutton’s own field of expertise; so, if you read the book, be prepared to learn plenty about art and aesthetics. I hope you enjoy it.



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  • phil rimmer #7
    Apr 23, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Culture is most manifest in any set of behaviours that one geographically isolated group of a species is different from another isolated group of the same species.

    One aspect of “culture”, is communication and language.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-36150503

    Scientists in the US have mapped out how the brain organises language.

    Their “semantic atlas” shows how, for example, one region of the brain activates in response to words about clothing and appearance.

    The researchers found that these maps were quite similar across the small number of individuals in the study, even down to minor details.

    The work, by a team at the University of California, Berkeley, is published in the journal Nature.

    It had previously been proposed that information about words’ meaning was represented in a group of brain regions known as the semantic system.

    But the new work uncovers the fine detail of this network, which is spread right across the outer layer of the human brain.

    The results could eventually help those who are unable to speak, such as victims of stroke or brain damage, or motor neuron diseases.

    Volunteers – including lead author Alex Huth – listened to more than two hours of stories from a US radio programme while remaining still inside a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner.

    The team collected data on changes in blood flow and oxygenation – indicators of activity – in different areas of the cerebral cortex.

    The cerebral cortex is the brain’s outer layer of tissue, playing a key role in higher functions such as language and consciousness.

    The brain imaging data were matched against time-coded transcriptions of the stories. The researchers then used a computer algorithm that scored words according to how closely they are related in terms of meaning.

    The results were converted into a thesaurus-like map where the words were arranged on the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

    They show that the semantic system is distributed broadly in more than 100 distinct areas across both halves – hemispheres – of the cortex and in intricate patterns that were consistent across individuals in the study.

    The maps show that many areas of the human brain represent language describing people and social relations rather than abstract concepts.

    But the same word could be repeated several times on different parts of the brain map. For example, the word “top” was represented in a part of the brain that responds to words about clothing and appearance, and also in a region that deals with numbers and measurements.

    “Our semantic models are good at predicting responses to language in several big swaths of cortex,” said Dr Huth.

    It would be very interesting to set up and compare similar animal studies!



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  • Very interesting, Alan. Thanks.

    It would be very interesting to set up and compare similar animal studies!

    It would be interesting to hypothesise that much of our facility with language flows from our ability to leverage analogies and metaphors using our post partum development of the associative corteces (the bits of our brain that grow explosively from 0 to 18months) and see differences from brains without this late period of growth.



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  • Regarding Art and its origins:

    Being a Techie, I appreciate and understand engineering and technology better than I do the world of Art. And so in the animal world, I am most immediately impressed by their technology, tools and tool-making.

    But I had it explained to me once-upon-a-time that tech innovation first requires vision, the artist’s vision. Once that vision is shared, the techies have something to build towards, and make a reality from the vision.

    Examples would be the very realistic paintings with true perspective that preceded the invention of photography. Jules Verne’s story about a trip to the moon, and lots of other science fiction. The trippy paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, long before hippies and Timothy Leary.

    There, I’ve turned Art into something practical, functional, essential: a sort of pre-technology, a Mission Statement, a Design Goal. I know, how crass of me.

    But that’s not to say this useful function is the reason the artist created the art. Perhaps he did it to impress the females? In which case it’s back to the mating game, peacock tails and bower birds. Or he did it to gain wealth and status (which fed him, and impressed the females), relying on other (usually males) to commission or buy the work, which they can hang in their own impressive bowers, to impress the females. See where this is going?



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  • On the animal man, culture, and the hierarchy of nature:

    “Even in the event of a fairly equal degree of culture, the conversation between a great mind and an ordinary one is like the common journey of two men, one of whom is mounted on a mettlesome horse while the other is on foot. It soon becomes extremely irksome for both of them, and in the long run impossible. It is true that for a short distance the rider can dismount, in order to walk with the other, though even then his horse’s impatience will give him a great deal of trouble.

    “The public, however, could not be benefited by anything so much as by the recognition of this intellectual aristocracy of nature.
    -Donald Trump…er, Schopenhauer —Sorry.



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