One morning, chasing down a lead about research on plant memory from an article published in The Economist, I ended up at the journal Oecologia. This trajectory is increasingly familiar: a news source renders a popular account of life science research, and, trying to learn more, I end up at the academic source. The table of contents quickly overwhelmed me, though, and provoked me to stop for a moment and take stock of what I look for or find interesting in journals on genetics, biology, and botany.
Working on race, I initially began reading science journals as a way to keep up with claims and counterclaims in the polemics over its social construction. But as my focus shifted from people to plants (still keyed in on race), and as I developed an ethnographic project on biodiversity research, I began reading the journal articles to better understand what these plant scientists are up to. Along the way, the items in these reports (concepts, techniques, analytics) shifted, in my view, from socially constructed artifacts to crucial means for comprehending the very subjects that interest my ethnographic subjects. Now my approach to cultural analysis is changing. Continue reading
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. Continue reading