Do non-human Primates have Culture?

Foundations of Human Culture Do non-human Primates have Culture?

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Marker’s Comment: Attempt made at referencing, see department website for referencing guide and using correct Harvard Style. You must reference every statement, example etc that is used through the body of text. Some good ideas are put forward in your essay, but there are too many arguments that are based on your own opinion. You must be able to support your claims. Work is needed on structure, organization and grammar, see essay document on website and try to plan your essay before you start writing and always proof read. Overall the lack of organization and evidence to support your claims means that you do not fully address the question.

Mark awarded: 42

Foundations of Human Culture Do non-human Primates have Culture?

Marker’s Comment: Attempt made at referencing, see department website for referencing guide and using correct Harvard Style. You must reference every statement, example etc that is used through the body of text. Some good ideas are put forward in your essay, but there are too many arguments that are based on your own opinion. You must be able to support your claims. Work is needed on structure, organization and grammar, see essay document on website and try to plan your essay before you start writing and always proof read. Overall the lack of organization and evidence to support your claims means that you do not fully address the question.

Mark awarded: 42

First thing to do while dealing with such a question is give a definition of culture. This is a very hard task, and many thinkers through history have tried to give an exact definition of it. For a long time the concept of culture has been considered the base for a qualitative discrimination between human’s and animal’s capacities and behaviors. Evidence of this is given by Lucretius on his “De Rerum Natura” ( On the nature of the Universe ), where he describes humans beings as some sort of animals, before the acquisition of those characteristics that made them proper humans, identified by Lucretius within moral and law( Lucretius, First century BC 1981 edition: 200). The Bible also is a proof of this. On the Genesis it is described how god created men and women giving them the power to rule on all the other animals ( The bible, Genesis 2, 27 ). This is to state that we are inevitably influenced by what are the roots of the Western society, and it is not a matter of being religious or not. These influences are present even in our times, in fact many of the definition of culture given more recently tended to highlight some aspects of our behavior as features of human beings only, forgetting that some other species also show those characteristics. This is for instance the case of Ruth Benedict that defined culture as “. . . that complex whole which includes all the habits acquired by man as a member of society” ( R. Benedict, 1929), this definition can for instance fit for non-human primates as well. One point on which the most of the definitions agree about is that culture is not individual, but its is something that concerns many individuals of the same population, and “…it is not monolithic but a set of processes” ( Boesch and Tomasello, 1998: 591). It is just relatively recently that people started to talk about animal culture, and more specifically about non-human primates culture. Two of the most famous examples of non-human primate behavior that started the debate about culture in non-human primate are the ones of a population of Japanese macaques that started washing potatoes in a river, and a population of chimpanzees at Gombe National Park ( Tanzania) that was observed while using sticks as a tool to catch termites ( B. G. Galef Jr. 1991:166). The intriguing thing is then what make some patterns of behavior classifiable as culture and what make disregard some others. Why people are more likely to talk of culture when they hear about a chimpanzee that uses some kind of tool and they are more likely to talk about instinct when a dog dig a hole to hide some food? This is because “culture” is a word invented by human beings referable to human’s behaviors and actions, therefore our vision of culture is very anthropocentric. This is the reason why non-human primates seen doing things that human could do as well ( like washing potatoes or using a tool ) are hypnotized to have culture. An ordinary dog digging some food in order to save it for later is not considered to have culture. This is because digging food is not something humans normally do. Even though non-human primates are more likely to be considered to have culture than other animals, people are still dubious about this. But stating that washing potatoes in a river, as a pattern of behavior never testified before ( and therefore brand new, at least from human anthropocentric point of view ), is actually culture, what about all the other behaviors of the species not taken in account ? In fact it would be imprecise to affirm that Japanese macaque have culture basing the statement just on one pattern of behavior ( washing potatoes in this case ). If they have culture it is because the whole of their behaviors must be cultural. Furthermore a specific behavior cannot be considered cultural just because it is supposed to be or is actually new. First because we have not enough field research data to make a big statement like that, second because animals can learn new behaviors, and as they learn them they can also forget them., just as we do not act like our grandparents did. However since culture is supposed to be a number of information and instructions transmittable between individuals of the same species, some researchers highlighted what they think is the fundamental reason why non-human primates do not have culture. According to them the main point is how the transmission of information is performed: while human beings transmit information both through imitation and teaching, non-human primates in the most of the observed cases, lack teaching, and rely mainly on imitation. That means that a baby chimpanzee have to learn how to use a stick to “fish” termites on his own, just watching how other individuals do. Instead a baby human will of course imitate as a consequence of observation, but he will also be taught and helped by adult individuals to achieve his goal. This latter mechanism is called pedagogy and it is taught to be the system throughout which culture is transmitted( D. Premack, A. J. Premack 1994: 354). Imitation is therefore not considered a pattern of transmission of culture. At the end in any case, both the baby chimp and the baby human learn the new mechanism, and the only difference between pedagogy and imitation seems to be a larger amount of time spent before achieving the task in the case of the chimpanzee, which does not make a big difference between the two different ways of transmission. Hal Whitehead, a Canadian scientist, is referenced proposed a new definition of culture, which is more open-minded. He said that by biological means, culture is an information transmitted between members of the same population through some kind of social learning, that causes similar behavior among different individuals of the same population ( H. Whitehead 2004: 2). By accepting this definition, the way information are transmitted lose relevance. Furthermore this definition is also strong enough to support the hypothesis of non-human primates culture. Even if Hal Whitehead got it right, stopping here could be a big mistake. Culture between non-human primates is more than that. In fact if humans have culture for the simple reason that they act like humans, then chimpanzee should have culture because they act like chimpanzees, and not just because they transmit information. Just the fact that they can learn new things is enough to talk about culture between them, and if the new pattern of behavior is actually less efficient than the old one, they can as well stop performing it. Doing things implies a cerebral process, and animals do things that are a advantageous for them just like we do. Therefore if we have culture it would be nonsense to state that non-human primates do not. They have culture simply because they behave. Their behavior is their culture, their instinct is their culture, because culture is not the behavior, but the behavior is part of culture.

References: • Christophe Boesch and Michael Tomasello (1998), Chimpanzee and Human Cultures, Current Anthropology, Volume 39, Number 5, pp. 591-614. • Bennet G. Galef Jr. (1991), The Question of Animal Culture, Human Nature, Volume 3, Number 2, pp 157-178 • David Premack and James Premack (1994), Why Animals Have Neither Culture Nor History, New York, Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology, pp. 350-363 • H. Whitehead, L. Rendell, R. W. Osborne, B. Wursing (2004), Culture and Conservation of non-Human with Reference to whales and dolphins: review and new directions, Biological Conservation xxx (2004) xxx-xxx. pp. 1-11. • The Bible, Genesis 2, 27. Oxford University Press, 2008 Edition. • Lucretius ( First Century BC), On the Nature of the Universe ( De Rerum Natura), (Translation and Introduction 1951 by R. E. Latham), Penguin Books.

Bibliography: • C.M. Heynes, Imitation (1993), Imitation, culture and cognition, The association for the study of Animal Behavior, pp 999-1010 • B. Thierry (1994), Social Transmission, Tradition and Culture in Primates: from the Epiphenomenon to the Phenomenon, Techniques & Culture 23/24, pp 1-18 • Michelangelo Bisconti (2009), Animal’s Culture. (La Cultura degli animali) Oasis, Number 184, pp. 20-30. • Stanford, C., Allen, J. S., & Antòn, S. C. (2006). Biological Anthropology. Pearson Prentice Hall • Michelangelo Bisconti (2009), La Cultura degli animali, Oasis, Number 184, pp 20-30

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