Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why IS Animal Culture So Thin, or, When & How did We Learn to Practice?

If by culture we mean learned behavior that is passed down from one generation to the next, then, certainly, animal culture exists. But why is it so thin? Why is the range of behaviors that animals can transmit so narrow? One cannot imagine, for example, that the behaviors animals have learned for the circus, would ever be passed on. Why not?

That question, it seems to me, answers itself. Because animals have no way of supervising the disciplined practice that such behaviors require. Humans can do that FOR animals, but animals cannot do it for other animals.

The types of behaviors that spontaneously arise in animal culture don’t require that kind of practice. Among monkeys and apes, potato washing and fishing for insects with twigs come to mind. Those are relatively simple behaviors, not at all like circus tricks or, for that matter, learning bits of American Sign Language. Bird song is different, and it does take some practice, but within fixed parameters.

The interesting thing about language is that it does and doesn’t require practice. Learning the phonology system requires practice. It’s what infants do when they babble, that’s phonological practice. And they do that spontaneously. Why? Why’s that possible? Once the phonology is in reasonable shape and the rest of the cognitive system is coming up to speed, why language is ‘simply’ absorbed.

Of course, developing various specific language skills DOES take practice. Story telling. Writing. And so forth.

It’s the practice that’s so difficult, no? Why?

So, what is it that motivated a bunch of clever apes to practice? And what is it that made it possible? Is that what hand axes are about, practice? Was practice invented so that we could produce finely crafted stone objects to specific models?

The genes can provide the substrate for only so many behaviors. You can imagine a long-term evolutionary regime that keeps on adding “one more”, but how long can that go on? Perhaps until the end of life on earth itself. But what it, somewhere along the line, a behavior is added that all of a sudden allows for ‘self-directed’ practice? One that’s happened, the result is a cultural regime that can outstrip any genetic regime.

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