Animal cultures and why they’re so interesting

As I am now back in the research saddle and have resubmitted a long-in-preparation review article (my fault, not the publishers or my extremely patient co-authors) I thought that I ought to write something about what I am interested in.

What really fascinates me is how are humans human? How are we, a fairly puny primate, able to live in such a huge variety of different environments across the world (and beyond)? The answer seems to be culture. Our cognition has allowed us to develop the most extraordinary technologies, invent customs and institutions, and form complex societies. However, when we strip it back to basics, it is all based on our incredible ability to learn from one another (so-called ‘social learning’).

Culture has often been defined as the sole preserve of humans, but since the 1970’s (initially using prefixes such as ‘proto-‘, ‘pre-‘ or ‘sub-‘) researchers studying animal behaviour have argued that non-human species also show culture. They noticed that behaviours were invented by individuals, spread to other animals, and became stable and durable, remaining in a population, sometimes over generations. This meant that different populations had different clusters of behaviour patterns – they had different cultures.

Alright, I am not claiming that chimpanzees had invented the rocket or fish had opera houses, but animal cultures are important and fascinating. Social learning didn’t suddenly appear with humans, in fact it’s spread quite widely amongst animal species. It is through understanding the similarities and the key differences that we can understand how, when and why these processes evolved.

As time goes on, I hope that I will be able to expand on animal culture, human cognition and social learning. I hope that I can give an insight or two and even put forward an opinion on some issues. For now, though, I had better get on with reading some more research papers.

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One thought on “Animal cultures and why they’re so interesting

  1. This is my area of interest too! Degrees in anthro / social linguistics/ cognitive studies . Wishing you well in your research and will be excited to read your findings and explore your questions. I’ve been a life long animal behaviorist, with main interest in primates. This makes me want to return to academia too!
    Thanks for sharing this,
    Cat E.

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