Re: Associative learning versus imitation - JoM Article

Fri, 16 Oct 1998 10:03:38 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: Associative learning versus imitation - JoM Article
Date: Fri, 16 Oct 1998 10:03:38 -0400 (EDT)

This is in reply to both Mario and Bob. Mario asked for some details
on papers by King (1991) and Edwards (1994), refs. in my previous post.
Bob refers to some work on imitation in animals by way of Agner's JoM

> It is my understanding that the Blarney of Rupert Sheldrake's Morphogentic
> Fields observed in animals is actually always explainable (if explainable at
> all) by imitation among animals that is adequately described but which he
> ignores. But we won't start on the milk bottles and the Great Teats or the
> fabulous birds of the Netherlands again....

I agree let's not start on them all over again, but, as Sue points out
in her very recent JoM article, there is no compelling reason to
attribute imitation to these birds. I disagree that imitation is
'adequately described'. Clustering of behaviour is adequately
described, but it could be explained by reinforcement which would be a
more satisfying explanation (since it would involve no ad hoc
hypothesis concerning birds' imitative abilities).

Quoting from Agner:

> But if we define culture as a behavior pattern common to a group of
> individuals and which is transmitted from individual to individual by imitation
> or learning rather than by genetic inheritance

I agree with the above (many wouldn't - eg. ideational anthropologists
of the Geertzian school)


> then there is no doubt that
> culture can be found in animals

This doesn't follow. We can still doubt it, and in fact we should
doubt it until proved otherwise.

> and there are numerous documented
> examples of
> behavior patterns in animals which are transmitted by learning (Bonner 1980,
> Gardner
> 1994).

As far as I can see from my limited acquaintance with this literature,
the above is also not necessarily the case. Bonner and Gardner may
think so, and so does Laland (1992), but Plotkin (1996) tends to
disagree (interestingly Plotkin and Laland are colleagues at UCL, so
there must be some good debates in their tea room!!).

Focussing on one example, quoted by Agner, and a regular feature on
television programmes about primate behaviour.

> A touching example, which is always cited when the talk is about cultural
> transmission in animals, shall not be withheld here: In 1953, a one and a half
> year old japanese macaque named Imo found out that she could wash off the sand
> from sweet potatoes by rinsing them in water before eating them. After four and
> a half years, 18% of the adult monkeys and 79% of the juveniles in the troop
> had learnt the potato washing technique by imitating Imo. In 1961, all monkeys
> born later than 1950 had acquired the technique, except one. Masao Kawai has
> studied the spreading pattern for the potato washing behavior and documented a
> connection with the social structure. In 1956, Imo made
> another invention. She found out that she could separate wheat grains from sand
> by dropping them into the water so that the wheat grains would float and the
> sand grains would sink. This invention has spread in a similar way, and later
> the monkeys had also acquired the habit of eating fish (Kawai 1965; Watanabe
> 1989, 1994).

This is, according to King (1991), largely discredited. King gives
refs. to Galef 1984, Visalberghi and Fragaszy 1990. The problem seems
to have been that the caretaker at the Koshima site inadvertently
reinforced the monkeys who were doing the washing by rewarding them for
their behaviour. Additionally, the average time taken for one monkey
to 'imitate' (allegedly) another was 2.2 years (!!!!!). If they do
imitate they are lousy imitators.

King also refers to the work of Tomasello (1990) and Fragaszy nd
Visalberghi (1990). Capuchin monkeys in controlled environments do not
imitate nut-cracking tricks, even when a) hungry b) are given the tools
and c) watch another capuchins do it. King says (p. 106) 'immature
[chimps] can neither rely on adult intervention or demonstration to
acquire skills nor proficiently copy adult behaviour'.

> Another famous example is about birds: Great tits have
> learnt to open the top of milk bottles and get access to the cream. This skill
> has arisen accidentally in a few places in Northern Europe, and from these
> centers of invention the behavior has spread by imitation.

Again, it is not proven, and on the face of it seems unlikely to be
anything other than an incidence of reinforcement of random pecking

> The song patterns of birds, the croaking of frogs, etc., are behaviors that
> young animals learn from their older conspecifics.

True for birdsong, but for frogs? I don't know. Perhaps if somebody
does know they could elaborate. The experiment would seem to be an
easy one. I worked with frogs for 4 years and they are spectacularly
stupid animals. But I'm willing to be persuaded, given evidence, that
they might imitate song.

> Occasionally, it has been possible to document that the entire social
> organization of a group of animals has been modified as an adaptation to
> changed ecological conditions. Connie Anderson (1989) has observed a group of
> baboons which during a few years changed their social organization and mating
> pattern as a consequence of the presence of a predator.

But does this show imitation?? King (1991, p.104-105) found that
baboons don't imitate adult foraging patters, but rather sniff the
muzzles of adults to get the smell of what they are eating. Then they
sniff around at random until they find the food. All this could be
genetically hard-wired.

Fragaszy DM and Visalberghi E (1990) Social processes affecting the
appearance of innovative behaviours in capuchin monkeys. Folia
Primatologia 54, 155-165.

Laland KN (1992) A theoretical investigation of the role of social
tranmsission in evolution. Ethology and Sociobiology 13, 87-113.

Plotkin HC 91996) Non-genetic transmission of information: candidate
cognitive processes and the evolution of culture. Behavioural
Processes 35, 207-213.

Sorry can't give complete ref. list as the bibliography of my copy of
King (1991, Yearbook Phys. Anthrop. 34, 97-115) has been ripped off.


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