Animals and Culture

Paul Auster’s Timbuktu is a terrific novel about Mr. Bones, a dog, who accompanies a homeless man, Willy G. Christmas, on a journey. Hugely enjoyable. But the Grumpy Vegan groaned when he read Paul’s article in which he discusses why he writes and the creative process,

But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art [the Grumpy Vegan believes 99% of art is not worth bothering with] that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.

The Grumpy Vegan bristles when he hears or reads about someone claiming that such and such makes human’s unique from all other animals. Animals don’t experience emotions. Oh yes they do! Animals don’t think. Oh yes they do! Animals don’t use tools. Oh yes they do! Animals don’t write novels. No, well, they don’t. But isn’t increasingly recognized that animals create their own culture? Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal seems to think that there is a chimpanzee culture.

The concept of culture in a non-human species was first introduced in 1952, when Imanishi suggested that Japanese macaques may develop population specific differences as a result of social, rather than genetic variation. Since then, claims for culture have been made for a wide range of species, including birds, fish, marine mammals, rodents and non-human primates. However, of all the species studied to date, the cultural repertoire of chimpanzees remains the largest. Recent reports from observational studies of wild chimpanzees indicate that there are as many as 39 cultural behaviors that vary between populations, and which have no apparent ecological or genetic explanation. These behaviors include courtship, grooming, and the use of tools.

So, before we humans get too high and mighty about what distinguishes us from the rest of the animals, we should pause and reflect that perhaps we’re not so righteous after all.

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