You know, they have it too. Not all species, certainly, but there are enough instances of nonhuman cultures to begin shifting how we think about this key concept.
In the decades since the idea of nonhuman cultures was broached, the notion has taken hold through recognitions that they also learn and transmit social knowledge. As Andrew Whiten and Kevin Laland et al explain, the presence of social learning as well as “traditions and other culturally related phenomena” among nonhumans has “proved to be far more widespread across the animal kingdom than imagined a half-century ago and more complex in their manifestations” (2011: 938). That’s partly because the list of such creatures is sprawling: numerous vertebrates—horses and hyenas, bats and crows, dolphins and dogs, all kinds of cats and rodents, and of course, our closest cousins, the primates—and the most globally dominant invertebrate genera: ants and termites, bees and wasps, and even some spiders. But this also reflects shifting sensibilities among researchers, that what we observe other species doing is not a matter of anthropocentric projection but rather a fairly accurate perception of homologous activities.
Thinking this way requires a simple, mobile analytic that applies widely across species and foundationally to humans, as well. Gabriel de Tarde’s work, which has seen a recent surge of new interest, is useful because he equates the social with two basic capacities: innovation and imitation. These are also the two prominent units of analysis for considering nonhuman forms of culture today (Lehmann et al, 2010). Mimesis, that long running concern in cultural analysis, is directly applicable as a trans-species dynamic; the question is largely, what are the mediums through which imitation both operates and is socially transmitted? The answer is ready at hand: researchers working with nonhumans tend to focus on vocalizations (as communicative systems) and foraging (behavioral interactions with a larger environment).
There is increasing evidence that these are learned and passed on within certain species. Many cetaceans (like dolphins and whales) as well as birds develop “local” dialects—patterned forms of vocalization that help groups cohere and reproduce, and that are not inherited nor transmitted biologically. These calls or sounds are acquired by conspecifics and play a role in where and how groups forage. Their vocalizations convey patterns of information acquired from and applied to environmental settings. Presumably, such communication also involves an interpretive dimensions, both by interpreting environmental contexts and conspecifics interactions with that same context. But as this brings us close to meaning, does this perspective, in focusing so keenly on modes of communication, rely upon or risk inscribing an anthropocentric definition of culture?
The answer will depend on how all of this works vis-à-vis biology, that long-running foil for articulating the social and our well-ensconced domain for identifying the real. What matters here is the realization that culture—which we’ve largely equated with the generation of symbolic thought and the operation of meaning, in a mentalist-bound sensibility—may be far more deeply entangled with biology than the “mind” imagined. Think of the various “turns” today in—ontological, affect, non-representational: none of them open up the biological in the way that culture potentially can when viewed in this trans-specific frame. But the capacity for doing so is where cultural anthropologists may get squeamish. Underlying all this research on the culture of nonhumans is an evolutionary notion of culture, one that “recognizes and exploits parallels between biological and cultural change,” a “rigorous science of culture” that draws upon evolutionary biology yet is directed at “the specific and unique processes of culture” (Whiten and Laland 2011:939). But wait, isn’t “culture” that which separated humans from determinate forms of biology and that freed us from strictures of natural selection? Maybe not. But if not, the gain from this line of thought is a much more plastic—that is, less deterministic sense—version of either biology or evolution.
The possibilities and options for thinking and deploying culture across species lines are just too many and too generative to foreclose by maintaining the uniqueness of humanity through retention of culture as a singular possession. What do recognitions of nonhuman cultures allow us to think? Many things, in tandem. First, it presents a means of regarding nonhumans as part of a continuum we share with them, of greater and lesser degrees of enculturation. Second, this is an opportunity to think comparatively about the capacity of culture both to respond to and to alter ecologies and biologies. In breaching the “golden barrier” that construes culture as a unique possession of humans, we can begin to think more broadly about the power and pervasiveness of culture—that force or condition that has altered the globe, as seen in the emergence of the Anthropocene. Together, these reasons generatively combine to give social theorists a means and cause to reconsider culture, as something more than that befuddling medium through which ideology operates.
The gain for cultural analysis is that we begin to get at something that has bedeviled social theorists for decades: how do you succinctly define culture? Culture generates adaptive behaviors that have the power to transform environments (“niche construction” or place-making), but that also can funnel the flow of genes in a species through mating rituals and kinship dynamics. In this formulation, we also gain a view of culture that is not formed principally by an anthropocentric attachment to meaning. In this view, Laland explains, “Animal culture is much more than a window onto humanity: it is an evolutionary player”. Studying “cultural processes in a broad range of animal species exhibit a number of properties that change the evolutionary dynamic, including detaching the behavior of animals from their ecological environments, generating geographical patterns in phenotypic characters, allowing arbitrary and even maladaptive characters to spreading, influencing evolutionary rates and trajectories, and modifying selection to precipitate and direct evolutionary events.” Not only is this an important insight, it is also an impetus to take culture more seriously among humans as well. We need to know more about this powerful dynamic or capacity, and we are best served if we open up the inquiry beyond the human.