Culture in humans and apes has the same evolutionary roots: study

Oct 20, 2011

Culture is not a trait that is unique to humans. By studying orangutan populations, a team of researchers headed by anthropologist Michael Krützen from the University of Zurich has demonstrated that great apes also have the ability to learn socially and pass them down through a great many generations. The researchers provide the first evidence that culture in humans and great apes has the same evolutionary roots, thus answering the contentious question as to whether variation in behavioral patterns in orangutans are culturally driven, or caused by genetic factors and environmental influences.

In humans, behavioral innovations are usually passed down culturally from one generation to the next through social learning. For many, the existence of culture in humans is the key adaptation that sets us apart from animals. Whether culture is unique to humans or has deeper evolutionary roots, however, remains one of the unsolved questions in science.

About ten years ago, biologists who had been observing great apes in the wild reported a geographic variation of behavior patterns that could only have come about through the cultural transmission of innovations, much like in humans. The observation triggered an intense debate among scientists that is still ongoing. To this day, it is still disputed whether the geographical variation in behavior is culturally driven or the result of and .

Humans are not the only ones to exhibit culture

Anthropologists from the University of Zurich have now studied whether the geographic variation of behavioral patterns in nine populations in Sumatra and Borneo can be explained by cultural transmission. "This is the case; the cultural interpretation of the behavioral diversity also holds for orangutans – and in exactly the same way as we would expect for culture," explains Michael Krützen, the first author of the study just published in Current Biology.

The researchers show that genetic factors or environmental influences cannot explain the behavior patterns in orangutan populations. The ability to learn things socially and pass them on evolved over many generations; not just in humans but also apes.

"It looks as if the ability to act culturally is dictated by the long life expectancy of apes and the necessity to be able to adapt to changing environmental conditions," Krützen adds, concluding that, "Now we know that the roots of human culture go much deeper than previously thought. is built on a solid foundation that is many millions of years old and is shared with the other great apes."

Largest dataset for any great ape species

In their study, the researchers used the largest dataset ever compiled for a species. They analyzed over 100,000 hours of behavioral data, created genetic profiles for over 150 wild orangutans and measured ecological differences between the populations using satellite imagery and advanced remote sensing techniques.

"The novelty of our study," says co-author Carel van Schaik, "is that, thanks to the unprecedented size of our dataset, we were the first to gauge the influence genetics and environmental factors have on the different behavioral patterns among the orangutan populations." When the authors examined the parameters responsible for differences in social structure and behavioral ecology between orangutan populations, environmental influences and, to a lesser degree, genetic factors played an important role, proving that the parameters measured were the right ones. This, in turn, was pivotal in the main question as to whether genetic factors or environmental influences can explain the in orangutan populations. "That wasn't the case. As a result, we could prove that a cultural interpretation for behavioral diversity also holds true for orangutans," van Schaik concludes.

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Provided by University of Zurich

4.9 /5 (9 votes)

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Squirrel
1 / 5 (9) Oct 20, 2011
Animals do not have culture but behavioral contagion--culture involves many other things that passing on learned behavior--a core part of the concept of culture is being uncultured for example. Human culture is also closely linked to shared intent and the propagation of symbols and higher level processes that shape the passing on of lower level ones. The only reason that behavioral contagion is called culture in animals is to get funding.
patnclaire
4.4 / 5 (9) Oct 20, 2011
The cultural, spiritual, and temporal arrogance of some humans is immense.
First it was Apes cannot talk ergo they are not intelligent. When it was demonstrated that not only apes and monkeys but dolphins, whales, and even crows have a vocabulary then it was another gauntlet tools. When Chimps were seen to use tools to get food, then a still other gauntlet social cooperation was thrown down. When different bands of Chimps were seen to go on a hunt for meat or to make war then a further other challenge was erected. We know from Jane Goodall that chimps make friendships and political alliances. Baboons do that, also.
Then we were told by researchers that if dolphins found a certain way to get food or attack sharks then those techniques would travel to far corners of the Pacific. Hmmm. We have known from primate research facilities that female chimps teach their young what they know. About the only thing that the apes or monkeys or dolphins do not do that humans do is use fire.
Callippo
not rated yet Oct 20, 2011
culture in humans and apes has the same evolutionary roots
It has many sad implications..
DKA
5 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2011
it is about time that we get more humble before the earth gets too upside down. As animals, we can't think ahead about the macroscopic conseqences of our actions. We try hard to see differences and avoid to see the similarities. We still want to see human as a living organism which is not an aminal and idealise ourself to the point that we think ourself as superior. Even some animals have "knowledge" that they "exist". But this knowledge seems to be very limited as compared to the human own sense of being. However we have very limited level of consciusness compared to how much we could develop consciusness. At this trait, we are more like animals.
DavidMcC
not rated yet Oct 21, 2011
DKA: "As animals, we can't think ahead about the macroscopic conseqences of our actions."

That might apply to GW deniers, but not to the rest of us!

"However we have very limited level of consciusness compared to how much we could develop consciusness."
I hope that's not a theory of "cosmic consciousness", or of "God".
askantik
5 / 5 (2) Oct 21, 2011
patnclaire hit the nail on the head. Humans are animals. To deny this is to deny science. Yes, we have our differences, but humans aren't inherently better than other animals just because of our technology or perceived greater intelligence-- in the same way that the Conquistadors weren't "better" than Native Americans just because they had more advanced technology.
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Oct 21, 2011
Whales to apes to bugs and possibly further, ...The closer I observe nature, the more I notice it's awareness. An example would be:

Wasps get trapped in my screened-in porch. When my roomate finds them, he chases them down and kills them. I just started picking them up slowly and taking them back outside. After about 1 week, when I walk into the room, they automatically fly to the doorframe, because they know I will let them out, they remember. They still freak when my roomate comes in the room. Could I say they are conscious and intelligent for sure ? ..No...I couldn't, but they are aware enough to remember me and this alone speaks volumes.

There is no limit to the value of compassion aside from the one we decide on.

Cynical1
5 / 5 (2) Oct 23, 2011
Isaacs - My bees know I am the creature who gives them sugar water. They leave me alone. My Newfies know I am the one who feeds,cares for them. (AND give them Pupperoni) THey are constantly bugging me to do something with them. Not consciously aware? I think not.