Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Animal culture, a review

Andrew Whiten, The Psychological Reach of Culture in Animals’ Lives, Current Directions in Psychological Science, April 27, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721421993119

Abstract: Culture—the totality of traditions acquired in a community by social learning from other individuals—has increasingly been found to be pervasive not only in humans’ but in many other animals’ lives. Compared with learning on one’s own initiative, learning from others can be very much safer and more efficient, as the wisdom already accumulated by other individuals is assimilated. This article offers an overview of often surprising recent discoveries charting the reach of culture across an ever-expanding diversity of species, as well as an extensive variety of behavioral domains, and throughout an animal’s life. The psychological reach of culture is reflected in the knowledge and skills an animal thus acquires, via an array of different social learning processes. Social learning is often further guided by a suite of adaptive psychological biases, such as conformity and learning from optimal models. In humans, cumulative cultural change over generations has generated the complex cultural phenomena observed today. Animal cultures have been thought to lack this cumulative power, but recent findings suggest that elementary versions of cumulative culture may be important in animals’ lives.

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Natalie Angier, Meet the Other Social Influencers of the Animal Kingdom, NYTimes, May 7, 2021.

Culture “is another inheritance mechanism, like genes,” Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, who studies culture in whales, said. “It’s another way that information can flow through a population.” But culture has distinct advantages over DNA when it comes to the pace and direction of information trafficking. Whereas genetic information can only move vertically, from parent to offspring, cultural information can flow vertically and horizontally: old to young, young to old, peer to peer, no bloodlines required.

Genes lumber, but culture soars. In 1980, for example, an observant humpback whale discovered that by smacking its tail hard against the water, the tiny fish on which it preyed were prompted to ball up into tidy packages fit for comparatively easy capture and consumption. The enhanced hunting technique, called lobtail feeding, quickly spread along known lines of humpback social groups, aided, researchers suspect, by the cetacean talent for acrobatic mimicry among members of a pod. Today, more than 600 humpbacks are lobtail feeders. “This would only be the case if it was socially transmitted,” Dr. Whiten said.

Sperm whales likewise used crowdsourcing to outwit Ahab. In a new study examining whaling logs from the 19th century, Dr. Whitehead and his colleagues determined that when New England whalers first started hunting a naïve population of sperm whales in the north Pacific, they were essentially harpooning fish in a barrel, harvesting untold gallons of the fine spermaceti oil contained in the whale’s distinctive top hat of an acoustical organ. In just three to five years, however, long before the whalers had made a dent in the whale population, their hunting success rate had plunged by nearly 60 percent.

“The whales were very quickly learning from each other ways to avoid being harpooned,” Dr. Whitehead said. Tip No. 1: Humans are not like your traditional enemy, the killer whale, so forget the old defense strategy of forming a tightknit circle with your babies protected in the middle. “That just gives the whalers something to aim their harpoon at,” Dr. Whitehead said. Tip No. 2: Swim upwind fast — humans hate rowing upwind in the ocean, and they’ll soon give up the chase. Tip No. 3: Find your inner Moby; dive deep, rise up and smash that whaling vessel to pieces.

Migration routes are (sometimes, often, always?) culturally determined:

... animal migrations, long considered the essence of mindless instinct in motion, are, in fact, culturally determined. “Mountain sheep have to learn their migrations from other sheep,” he said. Whooping cranes are long-distance migrators, and when their numbers declined so precipitously that there were no adult birds to teach young birds the route, conservationists stepped in and used ultralight airplanes as whooping crane tutors. Even farm animals can be repositories of cultural wisdom, as ranchers discover when they precipitously sell off their entire herd.

H/t 3QD

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