I guess I’m not surprised the idea of nonhuman cultures still generates disquiet for some cultural anthropologists. But I was a bit taken aback that this long-running argument seemed to be news. After all, there are recent ethnographic examples of what this looks like: Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut characterize their book, Buzz, as “an api-ethnography that considers bees as cultured beings that traffic between worlds of the hive and of the urban landscape” (2013:36), taking “the subjective experience of bees” as one of their foci as they work to interpret bees’ behavior. Somewhat less boldly, Colin Jerolmack’s The Global Pigeon (2013) depicts these birds as part of the social interactional order of public space; though he maintains them at the center of his ethnographic analysis, arguing, by the way, that “pigeons partly domesticated themselves” (9) in colonizing urban space. And of course there’s Eduardo Kohn’s, How Forests Think, winner of the 2014 Gregory Bateson Prize.
But in response to the question about the theoretical foundations for all of this, I’m quite ready to go beyond anthropologist and primatologists like Raymond Corbey and Frans de Waal who’ve been making this case for years. I’m more interested in how nonhuman cultures are being documented and analyzed by natural scientists, because their work opens up new spaces for theorizing culture “beyond the human.”
Start with this recent article in Nature: “Experimentally induced innovations lead to persistent culture via conformity in wild birds.” This is such an important, fascinating report because it 1) expands the scope of “cultural species” beyond the primates; 2) shifts the analysis of cultural transmission across diverse taxa from the lab to the wild; 3) underscores the value of the model of sociality formulated by Gabriel de Tarde explicitly to encompass nonhumans, centered succinctly on innovation and imitation.
As always, it matters what species you start with, and for birds, the great tit (Parus major) is it: “known to be highly innovative, opportunistic foragers and to use social information in a wide range of contexts,” this “makes them excellent models for a large-scale empirical investigation of the social processes associated with cultural transmission.” The premise is simple: researches caught and trained two birds to slide open a puzzle book door—left or right—in order to get at live mealworms. Both methods worked equally well, but each bird learned only one technique. Released back into their populations, the birds carried these techniques which then spread as “traditions.” Strikingly, birds that discovered both ways of opening the door preferred to use the behavior that was locally established, conforming to the local foraging practice. So not only does this involve social learning but also aligning with arbitrary, conventional behavior: culture.
Further, as reported in Science Digest, first author of the article, Dr Lucy Aplin of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, commented, “Even when a great tit already has experience of using one method, if it moves to a new area which favours the alternative solution this bird is likely to adopt the method preferred by its new group. It is as if its own personal experience is being over-written by the majority behaviour.” Again, very succinctly, culture; not just in the plasticity of behavior but the powerful dynamics of belonging and group formation.
There’s much more to consider about the study, particularly the distinctive role of technology in revealing nonhuman culture, and the burgeoning impact of “life histories” approaches in the natural sciences. But for now it’s important to see this work as part of a wave of recent studies, to take stock of these advances. Not to rehearse the case for nonhuman cultures and their importance in advancing multispecies perspective, but just to review the last few months of impressive findings.
Birds are surprisingly prominent in these questions, as in the discussion of bird “song cultures,” reported in “Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music.” Researchers claim their “data provide the most rigorous empirical evidence to date of a bird song that makes use of the same mathematical principles that underlie Western and many non-Western musical scales, demonstrating surprising convergence between human and animal ‘song cultures.’” Another bird—monk parakeets, which have a similar fission–fusion structure to great tits—were featured in a study of vocalization and group formation dynamics. These are both species where groups repeatedly split into separate subgroups, to merge again latter. Parakeets, and parrots generally rely upon learned vocalization to negotiate the dissolution and reformation of groups. This article (“The Socioecology of Monk Parakeets”) concludes by comparatively orienting these cultural dynamic to primates, generally, to heighten attention to cross-species parallels with humans. It’s an impressive array of correspondences:
“Both parrots and primates have similar relative brain volumes, are long-lived, have extended developmental periods, live in complex social groups, and show evidence of advanced cognition. Parrots also share additional characteristics with humans, which display the highest social and cognitive complexity of any species. Parrots are among the few taxa that display vocal learning, which is a defining characteristic of humans but is not widespread in nonhuman primates. The structure of socially learned parrot vocalizations often varies regionally, and social factors are known to have a strong influence on vocal learning. Because vocal learning is fundamentally a socially driven phenomenon, deeper understanding of why parrots learn calls from certain individuals could provide insight not only into factors that affect vocal learning in parrots, but also into the evolution of vocal learning and social complexity. The high fission–fusion dynamics likely present in many parrot species may also more closely resemble the high fission–fusion dynamics of human groups and may provide insight into the selection processes that drive sociality in our own species.”
This list makes me rethink Lévi-Strauss’ analysis of Western naming practices for domesticates, when he deployed the semiotic square in The Savage Mind to delineate the play of symbolic comparison/contrasts with birds, dogs, horses, and cattle, via metaphor and metonymy (1966: 204-210). In this play, “birds are given human Christian names…because they can be permitted to resemble men for the very reason they are so different.” This assumption certainly distorts the resemblances and commonalities highlighted in this list.
Following on the theme of learned vocalization (regionally varied, socially informed), cetaceans come to mind. Not just because some of the best evidence for culture in cetaceans includes songs and vocal practices linked to foraging techniques, but because their cultures are becoming the focus on conservation strategies. As The Dodo reports:
“The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS ), a United Nations backed treaty that aims to protect wildlife and habitats around the globe, has agreed at its latest meeting that whale and dolphin culture should be taken into consideration when the conservation of these amazing creatures is discussed in future.”
The assessments of this report are incisive:
REPORT OF THE CMS SCIENTIFIC COUNCIL WORKSHOP ON THE CONSERVATION IMPLICATIONS OF CETACEAN CULTURE “One aspect of social complexity which may have particular significance for conservation efforts is culture. Since culture may influence how a particular social group, or cultural unit responds to specific anthropogenic threats, or conservation measures, it is important that for groups exhibiting culture this aspect of their lifecycle be taken into consideration when evaluating conservation management options.”
We come full circle here in regards to recent discussion of the Anthropocene, as cetacean culture is envisioned as a resource against “specific anthropogenic threats,” to be tapped by conservation efforts.
The importance of recognizing culture here is that it exactly mitigates against a reduction of conservation to a means of preserving genetic diversity principally: “Current international and domestic efforts to conserve biodiversity focus almost exclusively on maintaining genotypic diversity, whereas sociality and behavioural diversity may also constitute an important aspect of the viability of individuals, social groups, populations and species.”
Here we have culture of nonhumans as means of expanding the scope of conservation from a matter of counting and managing numbers, to considering what we recognize with humans when we invoke the concept: a milieu, the viability of which depends on the volume and strength of social interactions—not “bare life”!