Do non-human animals have culture?

Chimpanzee with grass ear decoration

Unquestionably, non-human animals do, indeed, have culture. It is another example of an erosion of the concept of human exceptionalism. Humans like to think that they are special and different to animals but I am afraid that in many ways they are not. As The Times journalist Tom Whipple wrote: “Why we are not alone in the culture club”. He provides some great examples of how animals have developed a culture.

Chimpanzee with grass ear decoration

Chimpanzee with grass ear decoration. Photo: Edwin van Leeuwen.

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Prof Andrew Whiten, a zoologist and psychologist at St Andrews University, describes the adoption of cultures in animals as a secondary form of evolution. He said: “Evolutionary biology needs to expand to recognise the widespread influence of social learning, which provides a second inheritance system built on top of the primary genetic inheritance system, creating the potential for a second form of evolution, cultural evolution.”

He provides some fascinating examples. For example, chimpanzees in Zambia put grass in their ears as a part of a cultural trend. It is a fashion trend. It is arbitrary but it is cool. It sounds like humans doesn’t it?

Chimpanzees

It appears that a chimpanzee called Julie put a piece of grass in her ear in 2010. My personal viewpoint is that it appears to have been is an example of decoration. It appears to be somewhat similar to the way women wear earrings. Was this a chimpanzee’s version of human earrings? Was she copying humans? These are my personal questions. I don’t know whether Julie was in contact with women. I suspect that she was.

Anyway, the trend caught on. Other chimpanzees copied her and within this particular group of chimpanzees in Zambia, you are or were part of the in-crowd if you stuck a bit of grass in your ear. The chimpanzee “grass-in-the-ear” culture or trend was studied by Edwin van Leeuwen of the Max Planck Inst for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. The Study was published in Springer’s journal Animal Cognition.

He described the way Julie often put a straw-like blade of grass in her ear for no apparent reason. Sometimes she puts the grass in both ears and sometimes in one ear only. She left it there while doing other things such as grooming and playing. This occurred at Zambia’s Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust sanctuary.

He found that only one of four groups regularly adopted this culture. In another group one chimpanzee did the same thing once. 8/12 chimpanzees in Julie’s group often adopted this trend. Her son was the first to do it. Others with whom she regularly interacted followed.

Chimpanzees learn from each other. The professor suggested that it is copied because it rewards them in some way (my thought: makes them different and so they stand out). And they continue doing it even though the originator of the behaviour is no longer around.

Crows

You probably know that crows crack nuts open by dropping them onto rocks. In Japan, crows have elevated this process to something which is far more sophisticated. It is a method adapted to urban life. They discovered that cars driving over nuts crack them open. They therefore drop nuts on pedestrian crossings and wait for cars to drive over them. They then dash onto the crossing to pick up pieces. The culture spread among other crows.

Dolphins

In Shark Bay in Western Australia dolphins learned that some of the best food was under the sand on the seabed. But when they tried to harvest this food it scraped their noses. I guess that it felt uncomfortable and it caused some damage. A particularly smart dolphin, about 25 years ago it is thought, placed a sponge on its nose. Other dolphins observed this and the technique spread throughout the dolphins of the bay. The change happened slowly and it appears to have been handed down the maternal line. There is now a clique of dolphins who use this technique and they are called “spongers”.

Birds

A male sparrow in Canada altered the way they sang on the continent. He decided to sing his own song and it was copied because it was seen to be popular with female sparrows. At the time it was a niche song chosen by a few male sparrows but it developed into the dominant song on the continent. Its spread has been described as “cultural evolution” by Prof. Ken Otter from the University of Northern British Columbia. He thinks that it is unprecedented in terms of the extent of this cultural shift.

Others

Tom Whipple describes meerkats who are taught by their parents to avoid scorpion stingers and humpback whales who decided to start slapping the sea surface during hunting. One whale started to do it and it was copied by 600 peers.

Fruitflies

It seems extraordinary that such a small creature with such a small brain can develop a culture but apparently they can. Females decided that males with a particular colouration were more desirable than other males after they witnessed a female being mated by a male with a certain colouration. They decided that male fruitflies with this particular colouration were more desirable. Sound a bit like humans? Certainly, humans are not an exception when it comes to culture.

The interesting thing about the chimpanzee ear decoration culture is that it is arbitrary. It seems to serve no particular purpose other than that they like to do it. And in the words of Prof Andrew Whiten, “Because it’s the cool thing to do”. This is so human. There are countless examples in human culture where the reason is the same.