Culture is for the birds…and the bees…and the dolphins, etc.

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”!

11 thoughts on “Culture is for the birds…and the bees…and the dolphins, etc.

  1. “idea of nonhuman cultures still generates disquiet for some cultural anthropologists”

    What I find problematic with your work (and anyone else’s who shares your line of reasoning) is the way that you define culture. Had you not excluded a symbolic aspect of culture from your definition then it would be interesting to see whether or not there are other organisms on this planet (aside from humans) that possess culture.

    Yet you exclude symbolism and retain in your definition only the means of transmitting culture. If behavior is all that is transmitted than we do not have much of an understanding of culture. Where are the particulars? One may counter my statement by stating that to state that culture is also symbolic is unnecessary because this process has to be transmitted, hence, it stands that there is no need for anything more than the social transmission of behavior. Yet this collapses much behavior as if it is all equal–the fact is that we already know that it isn’t.

    To state the fact that sparrow songbirds have what are basically dialects only demonstrates that humans and some organisms share a means of transmitting behavior–social learning. You will conflate the social transmission of behavior with culture (because you exclude symbolism). Yet, what could be said of the songs from a symbolic standpoint? That is the much more interesting question to ask. Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (1997) takes this issue of symbolism head on by attempting to explain the differences between different forms of communication: there are some forms of communication that rely on a particular kind of reference–such as a Vervet monkey producing a vocal call for a certain predator– and some that rely on what he calls symbolic reference–such as a human, let’s say urban youth in the US, whom say the “business” and can mean an enterprise that sells some type of goods or services in exchange for funds, some type of rip off, or something of exceptional quality. The implications between these differences are vast. While a song bird can in fact produce its song, what else does the song, the song’s production do? I’m sure very complicated and important things. Yet, how is it similar and different from any human songs? In what ways are the two equivalent and distinct. Basically, my point is that if you remove symbolism from a definition of culture then you lose too much. With such a malnourished notion of culture it even becomes a rote exercise attempting to understand human life ways.

  2. Actually, I don’t “exclude symbolism”; I specifically addressed it: “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).” I went on to suggest that resemblance are perhaps more crucial to this symbolism than he realized.
    I don’t aim to exclude the symbolic but I would contest making it the EXCLUSIVE basis or sole starting point for characterizing culture, as too often happens in anthropocentric definitions. Nonhumans form mental representations, so arguably they engage in some forms of symbolism (particularly through grooming’s ties to social hierarchies, for instance). The question is when/how do you arrive at it analytically. Eduardo Kohn’s approach to biosemiosis—working up from the semiotic activities of all life forms—is a good example of how to proceed. But what if we tried “discourse” instead? Perhaps what makes these dialects “local,” in part is that they “constitute the objects of which they speak,” paraphrasing Foucault’s definition
    For that matter, I’m more interested in the biology-bending capacity of culture to shape the phenotypic plasticity of species. How does this work and, yes, how is it transmitted are key questions.

  3. Nonhumans form mental representations, so arguably they engage in some forms of symbolism

    Key word: arguably. My computer arguably forms mental representations, too, so it arguably engages in some form of symbolism as well, but only if we stretch these things out a bit.

    Surely symbolism is about the capacity to interpret the acts of other beings – that’s got to be the most basic and fundamental part of it. It’s the ability to hear someone shout ‘Duck!’ and know whether to crouch quickly or ready your gun. It’s not just mental representations. There’s much more to it, as TNT has pointed out.

    To do this as humans do it, you’ve got to use multiple orders of thought – thoughts about others’ thoughts about your own thoughts (and so on, potentially ad infinitum). Humans are very good at recursive processes; they automatically think recursively, and it has been argued, I think persuasively, that the ability to process multiple recursive orders is the defining aspect of human thought. (See e.g. Michael Corballis, The Recursive Mind).

    A few other animals can process a couple of orders: corvids are reasonably good at thinking in terms of multiple steps in order to achieve goals, and they can make tools to make tools to get food (for example), which is incipient recursive thinking. In principle they could think about one anothers’ thoughts, too, I suppose. So it’s not an absolute difference between humans and other species. It’s just that humans are much better at it.

    That’s why humans have culture, with songs, dances, prayers, architectural styles, books, internets, armies, non-violent protest, and so on, and why other species only have kind-of-sort-of-not-quite-culture. It’s also why anthropology, the study of humans, tends to focus so much on cultural products instead of more elementary biological processes. It’s also why definitions of ‘culture’ that are too broad and rudimentary aren’t much use.

  4. Interpretation is much broader, deeper than symbolism, a point Eduardo Kohn makes early in How Forests Think. Regarding monkeys interpreting an ambiguous sound as a potential sign: “Significance is not the exclusive province of humans because we are not the only ones who interpret signs” (2013:31). Indeed, in cultural or social species, there is often a collective, learned dimension to how signs are interpreted, which is quite interesting in thinking “beyond the human,” and also why, as I expressed in my previous reply, that symbolism comes at a later stage of this analysis. Following Kohn further on nonhuman interpretive process: “Interpretants can be further specified through an ongoing process of sign production and interpretation that captures something about the world and increasingly orients an interpreting self toward this aboutness” (33). Then see my earlier comments about selves and homeostasis, combined with this notion of biosemiosis. Kohn: “Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis” (34). Further: “Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcomes of semiosis will be a future self.” There’s a great, vast domain of culture out beyond the human, and we as cultural anthropologists should find ways to engage it analytically, instead of persisting in doubling down on the uniqueness of humans—a topic about which I believe we’ve really said all there is to say. What matters increasingly—as illustrated in multispecies ethnography and interspecies analytics—is to comprehend the underlying forms of commonality that link us with nonhumans and how this may help us respond to the predicaments of our increasingly precarious planetary situations.

  5. Through all of these posts, I’ve built up an appreciation for your determination. You drew yourself into Al West’s “Latour is a Charlatan” bit which is obnoxious, but the truth of the matter is that Al is doing something that is truly important. He’s trying to keep us honest to our search for knowledge. In doing so he is using a time honored tactic of finding logical weaknesses in your thought process and mode of explanation, unfortunately to do so also requires him to look past the creative nature of your argument. I think though that it is the creative side that has overtaken your project at the expense of providing a succinct way of describing what it is that you think you’ve discovered and in a manner that can convince folks like Al. There’s no easy way to do this, but it was your discussion about learning which highlighted a problem for me.

    You’ve been describing a good deal of the recent attempts to understand the intersection of culture and nonhumans, but surely we can trace many of these ideas back to the early attempt at this problem by Gregory Bateson. In Bateson’s work there is a far more nuanced and empirically formulated understanding of learning than what you’ve described here and it most certainly did not place the symbolic nor meaning as the sole starting point for cultural analysis (keep in mind that this is also the starting point from which Deacon begins, as his work is very much in conversation with Bateson). Bateson threw his concepts into this very debate through the study of dolphins only to come out with essentially the argument that Al (and to a certain extent TNT) has made: you cannot write an ethnography of dolphins (of course I’m simplifying here). Now granted I know the ontology, nonhuman species and ANT folks have argued against this position in various articles and books, but I certainly am not convinced that any of them have even remotely approached the level of sophistication found in Bateson’s writing from 50 years ago. Perhaps the problem truly is that we are using the wrong methodology, I am not sure why that is such a difficult proposition to consider. Ethnography was not meant to be an all purpose tool just as culture was not meant to be a black box catch-all concept (which is, unfortunately, often the case). I think in this series you have provided some fascinating theoretical propositions and of course in a blog post it is impossible to engage with them all on a deeply empirical level, so, needless to say, I look forward to the book. But I also don’t see the harm in admitting what your project cannot do. Think of how powerful the theoretical proposition of the “double-bind” was not just for anthropology but even more for psychology. To be able to convince a field other than your own that you’ve discovered something truly ground breaking is not easy…but then to admit that you have not succeeded 100% is perhaps even more difficult to say…particularly in a way that will make people say “but there must be something more here, if only I could…”. Now that is Science.

  6. Thanks Eddie, excellent comments and useful thoughts on Bateson. Yes, we’re all working turf he’s thoroughly tilled; Kohn in particular, which sweetens him winning the Bateson Prize last year. I don’t know his work on dolphins, so I’ll read that next. But an additional point here–one my next post will address–is that it’s not just what we anthropologists are up to; there’s an impressive expansion of knowledge on multispecies relations in the natural sciences, as well. And “classic” concepts like domestication are being rethought as we recognize the extent of nonhumans pursuit of this practice. Tapping all this, along with rethinking the human, then aligning it all in novel field studies may lead to different conclusions than the ones Bateson arrived at–or at least the promise of advancing knowledge claims. Maybe the ethnographic possibilities are just different, though, with domesticated species like maize. Or maybe we end up thinking differently about the role, aims, and ends of ethnography, such that, as a field science, it can bridge some of these larger disciplinary divides. Thanks!

  7. Well you won’t find a whole lot on Bateson’s work with dolphins because he never really wrote a great deal about it even though he spent years on the project. I have yet to read Angel’s Fear though, so I could be wrong, perhaps Mary Catherine put some of it together posthumously.

    I’m also very excited with the ways that ecologists and environmental engineers (who I study from time to time) have been expanding their range of interests into the social and cultural. However, when at the AAAs a few years ago someone asked me to describe the subjectivity of the landscape in my talk, that most certainly was not an ecologist speaking. Moreover there is also no way I could use ethnography to make such a description as the people I was studying don’t think, talk or act in such terms. I don’t fancy myself a relativist by any stretch of the imagination, but some concepts just don’t travel well outside their cultural context.

  8. On Dolphins: Over the weekend I attended the Human-Animal Boundary conference, where I delivered the keynote address, broadly covering the themes in my posts. Two panels featured the work of cognitive philosophers, who largely assailed human exceptionalist accounts of thought and ethics. One paper in particular, by Sara Gavrell (University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez), “A Sea Ethic for Islands: Helping Others and the Persons of the Sea,” pursued aligning Kantian ethics with species-specific accounts, focusing mostly on dolphins and the moral quandaries of captivity. She marshalled an impressive quantity of natural science work that demonstrated 1) dolphins are MORE SOCIAL than human, especially in how they act as agents of help, with each other and with humans; 2) the sonic dynamics of their interiors, which are entirely penetrated by acoustical signals—hence a rather different self than humans, too. I won’t rehearse it all, but I was struck by one of her closing remarks: “of course, it’s impossible to know what goes on it a dolphin’s mind.” That hardly matters to the capacity to observe and analyze their forms of sociality, if we construe that interior space entirely in terms of human subjectivity.
    Social analysis emerged with Durkheim defining social facts as “possessing the remarkable property of existing outside the consciousness of the individual.” We need to revisit that stance. It’s suggested in the variety of current “turns”—affective, ontological, species, new materialist, etc., which fairly consistently eschew text-based, meaning-focused analytics that have dominated the past few decades. Psychology was something to which Durkheim contrasted his approach, as in Suicide—that seemingly most individual, personal act turns out to be profoundly contoured by social dynamics. In suggesting that we work at re-centering cultural analysis by taking in a wider gamut of cultural life forms, this more external view of sociality opens up great possibilities for thinking differently about why/how culture matters.
    On Bateson: I located his essay, “Problems in Cetacean and Other Mammalian Communications,” and will try to address it in a subsequent post, though I’m sure it’s a superficial account of something, as you note, he spent years considering. Still, my initial impression is that “consciousness” was more his concern than sociality; that interspecies communication mattered more than considering the possibility that dolphins—who presumably acquired culture and sociality LONG BEFORE HUMANS—might be a basis for rearticulating cultural analysis.

  9. More on Dolphins (and there already is too much, especially on sociality): Gavrell referenced this book, In Defense of Dolphins, by another philosopher, Thomas White. I’ve not read it, but consider this snippet from its website: “Thomas White argues that the scientific evidence is now strong enough to support the claim that dolphins are, like humans, self-aware, intelligent beings with emotions, personalities and the capacity to control their actions.” My stance is analogous: natural science research is advancing our understandings of culture in nonhumans in ways that cultural anthropologists have yet to tap and mobilize. We need to get going, first by acquiring greater scientific literacy.

  10. Bateson on Dolphins: “As we begin to understand the metaphor system of the dolphin, it will become possible to recognize and classify the context of his [sic] vocalization.” Fascinating essay, which indeed sketches an ethnographic project, “to identify and to classify the component of relationships” in a dolphin group, through detailed “study of their actions, interactions, and social organization” (1966:577). Even more intriguing are the comments following his paper, which includes a caretaker at the New York Aquarium, who says the reason why we don’t recognize the expressive capacity of dolphins “is that they are bored to tears most of the time” in captivity. As research extended to ‘natural’ settings, this expressive capacity and its immense social dimensions became more apparent than even Bateson grasped. What’s striking today is that their sociality is increasingly seen as a basis for “saving” animals from captivity in zoos or animals parks. The Blackfish video on CNN (and The Cove documentary, as well) makes the case that the species most like us—intelligent, with complex social organizations—should not be kept captive. This argument has gradually expanded, shifting as a public discourse, from arguments against inhumane treatment of animals who could individually suffer, to assertions that those most approximating us socially—with strong family bonds and sophisticated communicative capacity—should not be caged.

  11. Very glad to see my points on Bateson stimulated some further thought on this topic and I definitely look forward to your next post. Just for another dolphin related aspect to consider I wonder if you’ve looked into the relationship between Margaret Howe and the captive dolphin she taught to “speak” back in the 1960s. There is a great deal of overlap between this project and Bateson’s although I’m not clear on the specifics.

    I have some additional thoughts regarding the issue of social facts as defined by Durkheim, but might save them for after your following post. In the meantime, here’s a thought that I keep wondering about. If you do want to expand the range we commonly associate with culture beyond the text-based, meaning-focused analytics, what then do you intend to call this layer which sits upon a foundation of affect and Daesin (being-in-the-world)…or am I not interpreting you correctly? Is there a hierarchy to your understanding of culture? A heterarchy? How are these features interacting with each other? Should we give primacy to one aspect over another? Or are you simply just stressing the way maize or dolphins exist in the world because there is a prevalence among anthropologists (not to mention the rest of the academy) to privilege those aspects of “culture” which are meaning making? Finally, again I look forward mostly to your consideration of what we might be losing out on by shifting the focus away from meaning-making and into the realm of ontology and psychology?

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