USA Today - interview with Gugatkin and de Waal on animal culture

From: Ray Recchia (
Date: Fri Jun 08 2001 - 00:47:44 BST

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    Subject: USA Today - interview with Gugatkin and de Waal on animal culture
    Date: Thu, 7 Jun 2001 19:47:44 -0400
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    Article in USA today on Tuesday
    For the European crowd, USA today is a nationally distributed newspaper with
    rougly the same popularity as CNN.
                CULTURE'S NOT ONLY HUMAN

                By Tim Friend, USA TODAY

                      Louisville Courier-Journal
                      Lee Dugatkin, a professor at the University of Louisville,
    has shown that dating habits can be similar to behavior of the simplest fish.
                Let's get something straight. Humans and animals are much more
    similar than scholars have led us to believe, and we share at least two
    fundamental aspects of behavior that have been used for centuries to define
    our differences and thus our humanity: culture and learning.
                Animal culture and the transmission of cultural behaviors from
    one generation to the next - known as cultural transmission - are still
    hotly contested ideas. Two recent books, The Ape and Sushi Master (Basic
    Books) by Frans de Waal and The Imitation Factor (Free Press) by Lee
    Dugatkin, support the pro-animal-culture side of the debate.
                For those humans who find comparisons with animals offensive,
    rest easy. None of the beasts running around outdoors can write poetry or
    plays, paint masterpieces that hang in museums or dine with fine cutlery.
    But our differences, as Charles Darwin pointed out more than 100 years ago,
    are differences of degree and not of kind.
                Dugatkin, a professor of behavioral ecology at the University of
    Louisville, and de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta,
    provide powerful evidence for the existence of culture and cultural
    transmission in animals. Some of the evidence stems from their own research,
    but they also include the major findings by others in their field over the
    past 40 years.
                "The question of whether animals have culture is a bit like
    whether chickens can fly," de Waal says. "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. Now imagine a world devoid of flying creatures
    except for the chicken. We would probably be mightily impressed, writing
    poems and songs about how we wished to be like them."
                De Waal uses the albatross/chicken comparison to illustrate the
    differences between human culture with our masterpieces of art, literature
    and cuisine, and animal culture with its simpler traditions - different
    methods of fishing for termites among chimpanzees from different troops, for
    instance, and different ways of grooming.

                A broader definition
               Humans have defined themselves by culture for thousands of years.
    Among Webster's dictionary's definitions of culture: "the integrated pattern
    of knowledge, belief and behavior that depends on man's capacity for
    learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations."
                The strictest definition includes the ability to use a spoken
    and written language and teaching as a means of transmitting knowledge,
    beliefs and behaviors. That one would certainly keep animals barred from the
    culture club, but most biologists accept a broader definition, de Waal and
    Dugatkin say.
                "There is growing evidence for animal culture - most of it
    hidden in field notes and technical reports - that deserves to be more
    widely known," de Waal says. "Culture simply means that knowledge and habits
    are acquired from others - often, but not always from the older generation -
    which explains why two groups of the same species may behave differently."
                The title of his book refers to the fact that animals, like
    humans, learn from each other by close observation. The sushi apprentice in
    Japan performs menial tasks in the master's kitchen for several years but
    never touches fish. At the end of the observation period, the apprentice is
    expected to prepare sushi as perfectly as his master.
                De Waal says he also hopes to dispel Western society's notion
    that culture is the opposite of human nature. The old philosophers believed
    that culture allowed humans to rise above their animalistic nature. De Waal
    says that Asians believe in a greater continuity between animals and humans
    and don't debate the existence of animal culture.
                One classic example of animal culture is potato washing by
    Japanese macaques on Koshima Island. In 1952, scientists began feeding sweet
    potatoes to the monkeys so they could watch the animals' social behavior.
    The potatoes were cut in pieces and tossed on the ground. Even monkeys don't
    like sand, so they usually tried rubbing it off with their hands.
                One day, a juvenile female named Imo took her sandy potatoes to
    the water's edge and washed them clean. By 1958, potato washing had been
    adopted by 14 of 15 juveniles and two of 11 adults. These monkeys have all
    since died, but the macaques at Koshima Island continue washing potatoes
    today. Since the behavior was transmitted through observation rather than
    genetics, it is cultural, Dugatkin says.

                Non-human animals imitate

                One of the chief ways cultural information is transmitted in
    humans is through imitation. Any parent knows too well that children imitate
    adult behavior. In the third century B.C., Aristotle wrote: "Imitation is
    natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals
    being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns
    at first by imitation."
                "Aristotle was wrong, at least for the most part, about the
    ability of non-human animals to imitate. It was a big oversight," Dugatkin
    says. Results of Dugatkin's experiments with lowly guppies indicate
    imitation is a far-flung behavior in the animal kingdom.
                It's no secret that females and males of our species find
    certain traits in the opposite sex more attractive than others. Popularity
    and good looks often top the list. Studies at the University of Louisville
    found this to be true in students and also found that if one person wanted
    to date X, so did others - a phenomenon called date copying.
                Dugatkin designed an experiment to see if guppy love follows a
    similar path. As a rule, female guppies prefer to mate with bright-orange
    males. The preference is determined by guppies' genes. In Dugatkin's
    experiment, he placed female guppies in an area of their fish tank where
    they could observe bright-orange males and dull males at the same time and
    also see a female making a mate choice. Through a trick with opaque and
    see-through dividers, the females saw what appeared to be a female selecting
    a dull-colored male. Surprisingly, the female observers also then chose a
    dull-colored male, and then overruled their normal instinct to mate with
    brightly colored males.
              Mate copying also has been found in other fish species, Japanese
    quail and small marine animals called isopods. Imitation of many different
    types of behavior is widespread in the animal kingdom, Dugatkin says.
               His and de Waal's accounts may just be persuasive enough to
    convince humans it's finally time to open the door and allow animals into
    the culture club.

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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