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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