Humans and Animals: The Tangled Web of Culture

chimpDo animals have culture? Can we see evidence of tradition in their lifestyle? If so, how has this benefited them? These were the questions posed at the beginning of this fascinating evening. Chaired by Henry Nichols, we were treated to three thought provoking mini-lectures from Prof Andrew Whiten, Prof Ruth Mace and Ms. Gaia Vince at the beautiful venue that is the Royal Institution.

What is culture? The majority of us might define that as art, cinema, literature and music. However, as I was to learn, anthropologists give culture a somewhat slightly different definition. Prof Whiten, from the School of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, kicked off the event with his interpretation of culture as All that we learn from others, that endures for long enough to create socially transmitted traditions. With this definition as our Polaris we embarked on our journey through the tangled web of animal culture. As the first author of a paper focusing on the behaviour of chimpanzees published in 1999 in Nature (co-authored by world-renowned primatologist Dame Jane Goodall) Whiten gave us lucky listeners a truly unique insight into the culture of our closest relative in the animal kingdom. From grooming techniques to courtship it was clear that these beings passed on traditions down from generation to generation.

Prof Ruth Mace, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology from UCL, explored how we differ from our co-inhabitants of Earth in our ability to pass on culture. The key was in our rather exceptional ability to be able to build on our existing culture rather than just transmit it. The ‘cumulative cultural evolution’ that our species seems to exhibit has allowed us to accumulate knowledge and make advances that other species haven’t even come close to achieving. Cultural innovations have caused significant changes to our genomes. For example, keeping cattle has caused a lactose-digesting gene to become prevalent in European countries where keeping cattle was the cultural norm.

The talk climaxed with a thought-provoking talk from Gaia Vince, author of ‘Adventures In The Anthropocene’. The book tells the story of her journey around the world to discover the true significance of humanity’s passage into this new epoch. Ms. Vince exemplified the amount of control we have over our planet. The facts were astonishing. Four tenths of all land is used simply to grow our food. Three quarters of Earth’s water is under our control. Homo sapiens has arguably become the first species to exhibit such mastery over this hurtling space rock. Are we, therefore, the first species to be able to stave off our own extinction? Or will we be doomed to devour our resources to a point of no return? I for one share the optimistic view of Gaia that mankind shall prosper because, like she says, what benefit will being pessimistic bring?

I will definitely be visiting The Royal Institution for more of their captivating lectures. Please check their website for an up to date calendar of events http://www.rigb.org

You can even watch past lectures on their online channel. http://www.richannel.org

Image reproduced from Wikimedia commons

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