A recent issue of New Scientist magazine (8 December 2007) included an article in which two scientists, Tony Martin and Vera da Silva, claim that behaviors they identified in Amazon River dolphins are clear examples of dolphins having culture. What kind of behavior is it? Square dancing? Art exhibits? Pottery?
It seems some males in a few populations of dolphins carry objects — bits of weed, a stick, a lump of clay. The carriers turn out to be among the guys most successful in mating and in prompting aggression within their group. So, the “wearing” of these cool accessories must make you somewhat sexier than the other less dressed up guys. Or they are offered as “gifts" to the gals. Females and the kids don’t carry this stuff, which they claim rules out the rationale that the carrying is simply a form of play — if that were the case everyone would join in.
Lest we think that it’s only the boys who have culture, Geoffrey Miller proposes that this kind of sexually selective behavior requires that the object of affection — the females mostly — be culturally literate in order to determine whose weeds are the coolest, most sophisticated, and the sexiest. No good getting all dressed up if no one notices. I would assume that some fine distinctions have evolved as well — that a clump of weeds say, carried a certain way identifies the dolphin as one of the cutting edge weedies as distinct from the tired stick clique.
The phenomenon has been spotted amongst geographically separate groups of dolphins. And they’re not sure if the behavior is ancestral (taught by elders or by the previous generation), or if it has evolved independently over and over in different areas, the way humans scattered across the globe sometimes develop similar buildings, rituals and behaviors. Either way, these guys claim it can be considered culture. Previously, scientists had only allowed chimps and humans into that club, but now maybe the rabble will be storming the velvet ropes.
What is culture? In the NS article it’s described as a complex skill (or behavior) that is spread and maintained by social learning rather than being a genetically fostered behavior, or one that the local environment might simply encourage. This description defines by exclusion: culture isn’t the making of things or a certain set of behaviors, but depends on how those behaviors are learned and transmitted. You could have the best table manners in the world, but if they’re merely instinctual, then you’re not cultured. Others define culture as using things or behaviors symbolically — and by that definition these dolphins seem to qualify too. When applied to people, this umbrella definition of symbolic behavior includes codes and prescribed manners of dress, language, religion, rituals, etiquette, morality, cuisine, and on and on. Inevitably, some of those products of culture in dolphins will be invisible to us; we won’t be able to know their religion, if they have one — not now anyway.
Using the definition put forth in NS — the one that excludes genetic environmentally prompted behaviors — would be, I think, to claim that to a large extent people don’t have culture either. I would say this is the case because our culture is maybe less learned than we’d like to think. I tend to agree with Miller and some others that what we call culture is essentially a very complicated and elaborate form of sexual display, some of which is learned and some of which is emergent, that is, strongly encouraged through genetic selection. This is different than a peacock’s tail display, which is sexual, but not a behavior — the peacock is born with his fancy outfit, whereas the dolphins, like people, have to do a little work to look their best.
I suspect these cultural and symbolic behaviors are mostly emergent in both people as well as dolphins and chimps. Maybe there aren’t specific genes that specify witty raconteur, financial dealmaker or rock star (though maybe there are?), but instead genes that encourage those types of display to evolve and emerge during one’s lifetime. Propensities for behavior are passed on genetically in people, just as they are in animals. These behaviors are not as clear-cut as instinctual behaviors — there’s more learning and skill mastering involved. But DNA might play a larger role than we would like to think, and our distance and segregation from our animal pals might not be as great as we presume. Moreover, our cultural manifestations might be parallel from society to society, with more similarities across geographically disparate peoples than we’d like to think too.
So, if this is true, then people don’t have nearly as much of what they define as culture as is commonly held. We have truckloads of what we call cultural behaviors, but if we only count the ones that are exclusively and entirely learned, there might not be too many left. If we subtracted all the parallel behaviors across human cultures on the basis of genetic influence then what are we left with?
In the past, another way of excluding members from the culture club was tool use — for a long time it was assumed that only humans used or fashioned tools. Then chimps were seen carefully choosing thin sticks and fashioning them into tools for extracting delicious honey ants. After that, more and more examples of animal tool use were spotted and acknowledged. Even in dolphins, it turns out. In an inlet called Useless Loop (Useless Loop!!), dolphins pluck specifically shaped sea sponges and use them as protective gear when probing the ocean floor. Some of the scientists who have spotted the sponging behaviors claim it is learned socially — the dolphins teach their kids how to sponge — which qualifies this kind of tool use as a form of culture.
Liz Hawkins, a scientist in New South Whales, Australia, also claims to have identified two hundred distinct dolphin whistles so far, all of which are contextual, qualifying them as comprising a language. The scientists don’t know what they all mean yet. “Bob’s got a nice wad of weeds there” might be one sentence.
If we broaden the definition a little bit we can still call ourselves and our societies cultured, but we might have to admit some new members.