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Sunday, July 14, 2024
Dr. Brown: Culture, and how we’re always learning from each other
Dr. William Brown. File Photo

As a species, humans consider themselves set apart from all other species because we possess gifts denied other creatures: our considerable powers of imagination, symbolic thinking and language, a compulsion to create and tell stories and, not least, our culture.  

Human behaviour in utero and during the early months of life is largely driven by genes, which underpin the acquisition of innate behaviors such as sucking, smiling, crying, raising the head, rolling over, crawling, sitting, standing, walking and mimicking sounds. 

Soon however, humans begin to learn language and increasingly absorb the habits, expressions, likes and dislikes of those around them.

These are the beginnings of cultural identity, which bind families and communities of like background and language together, while at the same time begin to distinguish them from other groups with differing cultural roots, preferences, beliefs and cultures.

Culture and many associated behaviours are thus learned from those around us and through experience, and given opportunity, culture also evolves. 

Evidence that culture can evolve is evident in changing social norms, hair styles, dress, play, music styles — all markers that often distinguish generations and contribute to shifts in cultural identity and change. 

Many humans still assume that animals are incapable of culture and believe most animal behavior is instinctual or in other words, genetically driven.

Some evidence suggests otherwise. There are many examples of animals who develop novel behaviors.

One example of this was Imo, a juvenile female macaque in Japan who, in 1953, took to cleaning her sweet potatoes in fresh water before eating — a habit that quickly spread throughout the troop of macaques and evolved over the following decade to a preference among these primates for salt water, possibly because of the flavour sea salt imparted to the potatoes. 

There are other examples of learned behaviours among chimpanzees, some of which were adopted by members of other chimp bands when they met.

The hunting habits of killer whales also differ from one pod to another and in different regions of the world’s oceans. 

But how much brain do species need to come up with novel behaviors that are copied by others in the group and perhaps evolve within a generation or more? 

Apparently, not much.

Bumblebees possess 1/100,000th of the number of neurons in the humans brain, yet were recently shown to easily learn a novel two-step complex test by watching trained bumblebees carry out the task, the reward for which was food.

Learning the same task was impossible for most naive bumblebees, but once trained, bumblebees were adept at figuring out even more complex tests.

This is a perfect example of socially learned behavior, even if less complex than many cultural behaviors in humans. 

Research has established that culture exists in the animal world but in one respect, humans differ.

Human behavior and culture are far more complex, perhaps because their groups are significantly larger than other primates.

Larger groups put a premium on social intelligence: keeping track of who’s who, who’s friend, who’s not, who’s helpful, who needs help and the social pecking order. 

Unlike most species, humans possess group intelligence in abundance and each human depends on the fruits of other human discoveries —  past and present.

For example, which one of us could make an iPhone, a computer, a knife, a watch or any of the taken-for-granted tools and conveniences of modern life?

Each generation and group contributes to that common reservoir of information and skills. But no one human can hope to understand or create the tiniest fraction of human knowhow.

That trend increases as the population of humans increases and individual humans increasingly specialize in smaller slices of what has become an exponentially growing body of collective human knowledge and skills.

In this sense, humans operate as a giant collective. No other species has power on that scale. 

These days, cultural changes expand at internet speed because of social media, which spreads novel life-style changes, rumours and often made-up stories, all in an instant, much of which is frivolous and silly, but sometimes nasty.

For example, I learned recently that defriending someone on Facebook takes only three easy steps, again at light speed to the delight or dismay of those sharing the Facebook site. 

Imagine: three clicks and someone is “defriended.”  

There are brakes on human social change and fashion.

For evidence of that we need only look at authoritarian governments in Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea to see that clamps on social change can be rigid, tough and unforgiving. 

Other examples of societal brakes on novelty and human behavior exist in workplaces, science, religious groups, governments even in democracies, the police, military, financial institutions and legal systems, which, at their best, provide needed checks on social and technical experimentation, but which sometimes stifle novelty and innovation. 

Checks and balances are common in nature, too.

Stars are a balance between the compressive effects of gravity working on the mass of a star and the expansile force of nuclear fusion generated heat.

Or in the biological world, during early development, an overabundance of neurons and connections are created, many of which are pruned in response to learning.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library. 

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