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This just in: Surprise, surprise, humans develop complex cultures, animals don’t


In “Sharing the Wealth (of Knowledge): Cumulative Cultural Development May Be Exclusively Human” (Scientific American, March 14, 2012), Daisy Yuhas reports,

Studies suggest that cumulative culture is unique to people, and that collaborative learning may be the key to human advancement. But precisely where to draw the lines for culture remains unclear

Some behavioral scientists suggest that although cultural traditions exist in many species, only humans possess a culture that accumulates. Put simply, if culture is evidenced when an innovator’s idea, behavior or tool spreads across a population and persists over generations, then many animals possess culture. Dolphins, for example, appear to pass from mother to offspring clever foraging uses for conches and sponges. But in cumulative culture, individuals transform and improve on a cultural idea, increasing its complexity and sophistication. Psychologist Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania has compared an example of consistently simple tool use in chimps, such as stick tools to fish for termites, with the evolving advancements in human technology, such as the transition from an abacus to a calculator.

Kurzban’s analysis of the difference is interesting, but the study that backs it up is unintentionally hilarious:

Opening each level of the box led to a reward: fruits and vegetables for the nonhuman primates and stickers for the children. The rewards scaled up in quality and quantity with each level, meaning bigger, more sparkly stickers for the kids and more coveted snacks, like grapes, for the chimps and monkeys.

If no one grasps the implications of the fact that, to create enthusiasm, the children had to be given prizes of abstract value and the apes/monkeys had to be given fruit, we’ve already identified the critical difference: Absent the ability to abstract, cumulative culture cannot take root. But didn’t we know this?

Demonstrating it is trivial. Accounting for it plausibly is the challenge, one that the chimps ‘r us lobby always seems to fail.

Still more amazing is that few dare ask why the lobby isn’t ridiculous.


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