Do animals have culture?


After hours of work on the powerpoint presentation, with countless restless nights… Marvin realized he couldn’t work the computer… because he was a monkey!

I’m posting this in light of a recent paper that shows chimpanzees can act as “strategic collaborators” if they need to obtain food. Don’t bother reading the study carried out by researchers at the University of Warwick as their explanation of their experiment is extremely complex and confusing. Even Science Daily, who for the record generally offer detailed and interesting explanations of recent scientific studies, struggled.So I’ll try my best. Below is the diagram of the mechanism they used to study the chimp’s behaviour:


Source: Study carried out by Alicia Melis and Michael Tomasello

So in order to obtain the grapes (the green balls in the box), they must be pushed onto the hindged-ramp with the rake (as seen in part a)). Then to decant the grapes into the bottom of the container the thicker cylinder must be used to push the spring (as seen in part b)). Still with me? Ok, what the diagram rather annoyingly doesn’t show, and took me a while to get my head around (I know, even I struggle with some science!!!), is that the chimps are separated on either side of the box so that each chimp can only perform one task (either rake or push). Remember the chimps can see each other through the perspex. So then one of the chimps was given both of the tools required to get the grapes and it was recorded whether they would hand over the correct tool to their partner. PHHEWWW explanation over. It turned out most of the time the chimps did in fact hand over the correct tool to their partner. This therefore showed that chimps can perform teamwork.

You’ve probably pick up the vibe that I don’t really like this study very much. I don’t believe it has covered particularly new ground. It is just one piece evidence however that cooperation (and by extension a primitive form of culture) developed in a common ancestor between us and chimps. In fact, other primates display similar behavior. Just look at this video (I love this!!):

This is debatable, but I believe the primate examples of cooperation above are what gives them the ability to develop culture. Culture is the transfer and retention of information between individuals within groups. These animals are changing their behaviour in order to increase their food supply, or to use a scientific term “fitness”. It may seem completely different but when we as humans chat about TV or, once upon a time, danced around a fire we were, and are, indirectly increasing our ‘fitness’ through forming social bonds. Our ability to form complex relationships with each other is one of the main reasons why we are currently the dominant species on the planet.

Many other forms of culture have been studied in primates, partly because it is the most recognizable as our own. A very distinguished  primatologist called Kinji Imanishi carried out a famous study in which a young macaque began to wash her sweet potatoes in a stream before eating them. This was then copied by other individuals of the same age and even by its mother. It then eventually spread to the whole group. He termed this a ‘pre-culture’ as not to confuse it with ours.

Other animals are somewhat harder to define as displaying “cultural” behaviour as it is less similar to our own. Researchers just tend to look for indicators such as the ability to learn, cooperate or have language.

Everyone’s got a mate with an annoying little parrot that keeps repeating things back in your face.  However its actually thought they aren’t just inanely mimicking but they can actually use the words they have learnt to achieve a goal. They can also do simple calculations in their heads then convey the information in human form. Check out this incredible footage from the world’s most famous bird, Alex the Parrot:

Because they can learn, and understand that this new behaviour is beneficial to them it can be passed between individuals. He even knows how to trick the researcher. Look at how he tries to stall the procedure by asking for water even though he didn’t need any! Cheeky little blighter!

Basically any behaviour that is spread between generations can be defined as culture eg. Mother killer Whales pushing their kids onto the shore in order to teach them how to catch seals. There are so many examples that I just don’t have time to go into. For more cultural behaviour anecdotes read this great book The Question of animal culture’ by Kevin Laland. Its not too long and the writing is almost as engaging as mine.

What are your thoughts on animal culture? Have you seen any examples of it? Please leave some comments.


2 responses to “Do animals have culture?

  1. Fairly interesting post but I find it hard to believe that my dog has any kind of culture. He followed a laser pen for about an hour the other day.

  2. Haha fair point. Remember though it doesn’t have to be culture as we see it. Any kind of passing on of information can be counted as culture of “pre-culture”. It’s quite a loosely defined term so its hard to put your finger on it.

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