Culture club

Social learning in humans and other animals

source: Kate Douglas
New Scientist vol 208 no 2787, 20th November 2010 
starts p 38, four pages long

Research in recent years has shown that many animals species are capable of developing socially learned traditions, and so have culture. A group of chimps, for example, may develop its own tools to fish for termites, or its own grooming style. Many animals can teach these cultural traditions through social learning.

A whale or dolphin group can develop its own songs, while a group of orang-utans may have a tradition of members blowing raspberries to others before sleeping. Species can benefit from individuals copying what other individuals in their group do, because it allows them to adapt to environmental changes in a way that hard-wired behaviours do not. Even birds can learn from
each other, for example, blue tits raised by great tit parents, and blue tits raised by great tits learn the foraging traditions of the parents that raise them.

Learning by copying can, however, be harmful if animals don't change from learned traditions when their environment changes. Animals can also develop customs that are unhelpful. Humans tend to copy other humans who have prestige. Humans also use explicit demonstration rather than just learning through observation. Children tend to imitate those people who conform to social norms. Innovation can still come when triggered by outside forces, like climate change and increases in cultural exchange. The internet allows information sharing and for individuals to join with others sharing their concerns. Groups have their downsides, but also provide conditions for cultural diversity.