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CULTURE—WE’RE ALL ANIMALS OF ONE SORT OR ANOTHER

A NEW BOOK reviewed in Science, April 10, 2020, proposes an expanded view of culture: Rather than Merriam-Webster‘s first definition, “the customary beliefs, social form, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group,” think instead of “Framing culture as a process of learned behaviors that help shape modes of living…” Even if the behaviors are those of nonhumans.

“Considering Nonhuman Culture” is the title of Mary Ellen Hannibal’s review of Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace,” by Carl Safina.

Mary Ellen Hannibal writes, “Safina’s bracing and enlightening book focuses on three distinct dimensions of nonhuman life.” With sperm whales, it’s their communication. With macaws, it’s their appreciation of beauty. And with chimpanzees, it’s their overlap with human behavior.

Here are tidbits on each of these gleaned from the review.

Sperm Whale Communication. Hannibal writes, “Clicking may be instinctive and inherited, but the finer characteristics of the sounds are learned. The fact that these whales learn from each other is evidence that their lives are more than competition, predation, survival, and selection—they include social learning and culture.”

Sperm whales off the coast of Mauritius. Image by Gabriel Barathieu.

Safina writes about their aquatic environment: “We’re at what’s called sea level, as though an ocean is solely surficial… In reality, we are skimming the thick, wide, densely inhabited world beneath us.”

Macaw Aesthetics. Hannibal observes, “The extravagance of macaws begs one of the longest-standing question in evolutionary biology: Why and how would natural selection result in the seeming superfluousness of such great beauty?”

She cites Safina’s reference to ornithologist Richard Prum, “who has recently argued that Darwin was right in asserting that beautiful males are thus because females like them that way.”

Macaws. Image from britannica.com.

Hannibal says, “In macaws and other visually stunning animals, Safina finds that beauty is an enduring cultural attribute.”

Chimpanzees, Our Nearest Relatives. Hannibal says, “Chimps, we learn in the book’s final section, share not only most of our DNA but also a lot of our behavior. And while these include degrees of altruism and empathy, in general, it is not a pretty picture.”

Safina writes, “Violence from inside the community: that’s what’s unusual about chimps—and about us.”

Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, share 99 percent of DNA with humans. Image of Eastern Chimpanzee by Bernard Dupont.

Hannibal concludes, “Some of Safina’s assertions may require tweaks and adjustments as more data come in—the study of cognition, both animal and human, is still in its infancy—but in stretching his own mind, he challenges us to be more acutely aware of species whose social lives have much to teach us.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

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