Nonhuman Cultures

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.


6 thoughts on “Nonhuman Cultures

  1. 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.

    But to do so the intramural bickering that has separated cultural anthropologists from their colleagues in archeology, linguistics, and biological anthropology will have to be dispensed with, along with the proposition that ontologies can be treated as discrete phenomena instead of permutations of widely shared ideas.

    On the other side of the coin, those who imagine a continuum of differences between species will need to learn to recognize that phase transitions are a common feature of evolution in both human and non-human systems, and both sides will need fresh thinking to describe and account for them.

    P.S. For those unfamiliar with “phase transitions,” just think of water as ice, liquid and steam. It’s all H2O, the chemistry doesn’t change, the effects are dramatically different depending on other conditions, in this case temperature and pressure.

    P.P.S.That social learning and tool use, for example, are found in far more species than H. sapiens is now indisputable. That neither has been elaborated to the same extent found in H. sapiens is also indisputable. We know that there is a bridge to cross. We have only vaguely imagined how to build it.

  2. I’m pleased to read that you’ve taken the time to list a few very interesting facts concerning role of social learning in the life spans of various organisms. Social learning is simply a mechanism of transmitting information, but in itself doesn’t constitute culture.
    Yet, this does not constitute “nonhuman culture.” That sparrows learn particular song dialects, might suggest that some of the very (neurological?) processes involved in transmitting culture are widespread. Of course, one would need to identify first if indeed there is a neurological basis (which I take as fact) to social learning across species and whether or not this is due to homology or analogy. In the case of songbirds, it might be due to convergent evolution.

    With respect to your view of culture, in order to substantiate your implicit claim–that nonhumans possess culture–you narrowly define human culture actually is.

    Your definition of culture runs along the following lines:

    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.

    Humans speak languages. This an important characteristic with cognitive prerequisites: The ability to distinguish between frames (e.g., is this a play or real life? Is this a game or serious?); the ability to be self-reflexive; the ability to discuss abstract times, places, people.

    I will not exhaust the list. This one characteristic excludes most, if not all, species from possessing culture.

    Another human cultural characteristic closely linked to language is our ability to create meaning. Our species imposes meaning on the world. In the words of Terrence Deacon we are a symbolic species.

    Your definition of culture excludes these pivotal human characteristics, thus making it seems as if ‘culture’ was widespread.

  3. yes, exactly, I opt for the widest definition of culture, away from what makes humans unique and towards what we share in common with a large array of monhumans. I think we’ve fetishized meaning too much in cultural analysis; we need to rehearse Durkheim on social facts, which opens up a wide scope of nonhuman socially.

  4. Hi Prof. Hartigan,

    It is possible to aptly describe the particular biological and behavioral characteristics shared by both humans and other species without distorting a theoretical notion of culture. I believe we both share an interest in understanding these behavioral similarities and differences across species. We disagree about the definition of culture. It remains a nontrivial fact that culture is comprised of language and meaning making–both of which are the results of nontrivial neurological and cognitive processes.

    By excluding the aforementioned characteristics from a definition of culture you want to downplay the very processes that are central to our species’ very existence, and you do so (at least it seems on these blog posts) without any theoretical justification. Your only recourse has been to claim that meaning is fetishized and I can imagine that you might go on to claim that language or meaning isn’t of your particular interest.

    Again, I believe we can justly display that various species display similar behavioral patterns–that is, in some instances particular differences between humans and other species are more along the lines of a continuum than a fine cut line and in others it seems that these differences are more stark. This is where practitioners of anthropology (the study of humanity as stated in the name) can benefit from engaging with practitioners of ethology.

    Finally, I still do not understand how anyone can do an ethnography of corn. Had we removed corn and plugged in ‘chimpanzee’ I would quickly state that it is an ethology. I’ll just have to wait until you publish your book to find out.

  5. Thanks for this elaboration, and I’ll develop my argument further in another post. But just to clarify: my theoretical justification for this line of thought is that the recognition of culture in nonhumans is 1) expanding rapidly and 2) offering important, generative opportunities to advance multispecies ethnography and other forms of analysis. It’s a moment similar to that depicted by Raymond Corbey (The Metaphysics of Apes Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary), of the desperate effort to redefine the criteria of human uniqueness around “tool use” as it kept showing up in the activities of an array of nonhumans.

  6. Further, on the theoretical ground here, a choice synopsis in a review of Frans de Waals’ The Ape and the Sushi Master: “Culture — behavior learned from others — was long vaunted as inimitably human. But de Waal points out how tired this presumption is. Monkeys teach their siblings how to wash sweet potatoes in the ocean; chimpanzee mothers show their young how to use stones to crack nuts; apes learn to medicate themselves with herbs. In 1999, an international survey of wild chimpanzees published in Nature described 39 distinct behavior patterns. In other words, separate communities of chimpanzees, even in the same environment, develop different social customs.

    ”The question whether animals have culture is a bit like whether chickens can fly,” de Waal writes. ”Compared to an albatross or falcon, perhaps not, but chickens do have wings, they do flap them, and they do get up in the trees.” He suggests that we’d learn far more by fully exploring the rich array of varied behaviors among nonhuman primates than continuing to quibble over categorical distinctions, a stance he chalks up to ”anthropodenial.” from, “Are You in Anthrodenial,” NYTimes

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