Huzzah! We’re Not So Special


Pretty soon, the only thing that’ll mark humans as unique among animals is the fact that we can build skyscrapers and have to argue constantly with creationists. We sure as shit can’t claim culture:

Now, Andrew Whiten from the University of St Andrews has published the first evidence that groups of chimpanzees can pick up new traditions from each other. In an experimental game of Chinese whispers, he seeded new behaviours in one group and saw that they readily spread to others.

Whiten ran an experiment in which he taught some chimps, but not others, how to extract food from trick boxes. He then put those chimps in a position to be observed by other chimps who couldn’t interact directly with them. And this is what he discovered:

Whiten found that the techniques were accurately and quickly transmitted between the different chimpanzee groups. His experiment clearly shows that chimps have an immense capacity for learning new behaviours from their peers. They do this accurately and different groups can acquire and maintain several varied cultural traditions.

In light of this evidence, the regional behaviour patterns seen in chimp groups across Africa are, without a doubt, the result of cultural transmission. In the wild, rival groups are often hostile towards each other and it is unlikely that chimps sit down in jungle conferences to share new ideas. But females do move between groups and Whiten believes that they carry new cultural traditions with them.

Deary, deary me. That sounds an awful lot like what happens in traditional human societies, don’t it just? That’s going to get the creationists’ knickers in quite a twist.

I know some people get really steamed over the idea that we’re not on some high pinnacle above the mere beasts, but I find things like this comforting. I feel like humanity is less alone in the universe. Not to mention, no needing to worry about how, if humans are supposed to be teh awesome, we’re often so bloody, bloody ridiculous. We’re just natural, no better and no worse than the rest of our cousins, but with the responsibility to at least try to use the brains evolution gave us to become better creatures.

Comments

  1. says

    Dana:That’s great research, but I’m surprised it’s being portrayed as the first evidence of culture among non-human primates.Many decades ago, Jane Goodall observed chimps making tools. That is almost certainly a learned trait.I took a primatology class 20 years ago. I remember there was a band of primates somewhere. My recollection is that they were macaques. The scientists there were in the habit of giving them potatoes. I think this was to keep the monkeys away from the human cities and eating McDonalds and Burger King and then getting into arguments over which was worse. At some point, one of the monkeys decided he wanted to wash his potato in the ocean first. Before long, all monkeys were washing their potatoes in the ocean.I guess it would be considered culture if it persists across generations. I don’t know if that behavior persisted.Monkeys have been aping the behavior of others since God put them on this earth. I’m not sure how this new study is different, other than it is under controlled conditions.