What is Animal Culture? Get to know about it here

Dear fellow animal lover! Reading the title up there, have you ever wonder if our animal friend is cultured? Interestingly, we, human being used to the idea of culture as the difference between human and animal. That human can think, while the animal has instinct. This idea stands strong until more convincing evidence of animal culture found on plenty of research within animals around 2013, including studies in monkeys and whales.

The question of whether non-human societies have a culture or not mostly emerge due to the different definition of the culture itself. What’s actually considered as culture anyway? I remember once my professor defined culture as the product of human creation. However, this one definition came on a specific human culture lecture so we might just let it pass.

Another definition we found is that culture is the way of life of a particular group at a particular time. There are also other explanation on what’s culture but most researchers agreed on the simple definition of culture which includes collective learning and transmission of one or more behaviors among a group. The latest definition does not only apply to human but animal as well.

History of Animal Culture

So, how’s the theory of animal culture started? Despite the popular belief at that time (that animal have no culture), Kinji Imanishi, a Japanese zoologist had raised the possibility that animal has the basics of culture in the early 1950s, and in the early 1970s, Jane Goodall had proposed the same for chimpanzees.

However, some said that Aristotle already provided evidence of social learning in the songs of birds. Also, we don’t want to forget Charles Darwin who is the first to tried to find the existence of imitation in animals. Darwin was attempting to prove his theory of the human mind’s evolution from that of lower beings. He was also the first to suggest what became known as social learning in his attempt to explain the transmission of an adaptive pattern of behavior.

The journey of this theory of animal culture then followed by Richard Dawkins who proposed the term meme to explain an overall mechanism of how animal behavior is shared and spread to lead to cultural evolution. Fun fact, Dawkins especially choose the word meme because it rhymes with the gene. Dawkins claimed the following orders are needed for cultural evolution to happen:

  1. Variation within the memes present.
  2. The capacity for meme replication between two or more parties.
  3. Fitness advantages and/or disadvantages with each meme that lead to the selection or rejection of one meme over another.

Similarly, these three criteria are also necessary for genetic evolution in the context of gene. However, cultural transmission with the meme unit has a distinct feature, which is individuals being capable of developing varieties of interpretations of the meme without exactly “copying” it to pass it on. These interpretations then lead to the creation of new memes, which are themselves subject to a cyclic process of selection, rejection, or modification.

Lastly, we have Andrew Whiten, professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Psychology at the University of St. Andrews, with his work on chimpanzees that contributed to a greater understanding of cultural transmission. In Cultural Traditions in Chimpanzees, he created a compilation of results from seven long-term studies of observation analyzing behavioral patterns in different communities of chimpanzees in Africa. The implications of these findings indicate that chimpanzee behavioral patterns mimic the distinct behavioral variants seen in different human populations in which cultural transmission has generally always been an accepted concept. In short, Whitens argued that animal has a culture.

Example of Animal Culture

Now, let’s jump to the most interesting bits of this topic, animal’s behavior that indicates the existence of culture within the animal kingdom.

  • Andrew Whiten’s chimpanzee

From Whiten’s observation, he found that chimpanzees from different part of Africa actually have similar traditions or behaviors but different ways of doing. For example, some chimpanzees used a twig to take out honey, while others used a leaf to do the same thing. Some would be drumming on branch or tree to call for attention, while others would tear the leaf with their teeth to do the same thing. 

  • Bottlenose dolphin’s foraging habit

Bottlenose dolphin in Australia’s Shark Bay was discovered on wearing sponges on its beak while it forages for food. This behavior passes from mother to her offsprings, and transmission of behavior is one of the definitions of culture.

  • Humpback whale song

If you haven’t known yet, the humpback whale is known for their singing ability, or what we also know as whale calls. The scientist pointed out that their calls are similar to human’s song, like having structure and charts. Yup, they have trending song, just like us. 

Humpback’s calls structure discovered when scientists recorded its calls. The single sound or unit combines to a phrase. Then, this phrase is repeated over to make a theme which is being delivered in a specific order, and voila! Beautiful humpback whale song is made.

One interesting finding of humpback’s song concerning animal culture is that they have a trend. In the 1990s, humpback whale in the eastern coast of Australia was discovered of singing what scientist called as the pink song. However, in 1995, the whale from the west swam around while bringing a foreign song called the black song. This black song was going viral for several years, making it ways to the top of the chart. That is, of course, until the new song took over again and again. 

All in all, observing the animal’s behavior always fun. There are still a lot that we don’t know about them even if we have lived side by side for a long time. I guess we’ll never have enough time to learn about every living thing on earth anyway. But that’s why it’s fun to learn, right? There is always something new to discover. We hope this article enlight you in some way. Have a nice day!