2.a.3 – How does culture help to survive?

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January 9, 2010 — Riccardo Sabellotti - Giacinto Sabellotti


How does culture help to survive?

Normally the puppies learn many things from their parents, such as how to search food, how to take it, how to behave with their own kind, etc.., we human beings have a similar behavior with our children, to whom we teach to speak, the relations structure and how to gain their independence.
It was noted that cats, like lions, teach their puppies hunting techniques in progressive stages: when they are very young, their parents slaughter the prey for them; then they no longer do so, letting them do it on their own; then they bring the prey still alive, although seriously injured, in order to teach how to bite to kill and, when finally reaching the right age, the parents take the young felines to hunting with them as observers; after this stage, the puppies, now grown, are ready to learn to obtain food in complete autonomy.
The animals therefore not merely teach their children useful things but they are able to do it with a rather complex internship. Hunting is not a simple thing: chase, attack and kill are all complex activities and expecting that the puppies learn everything on their own means exposing them to the risk of dying from hunger. The predators who do it are forced to make many more children in order not extinct.
The young cats bred in captivity show an inclination innate to chase, fight and bite, but they must work a lot on these activities to combine the best and execute them effectively. What is defined hunting instinct is actually a complicated combination of several different instincts (chase, fight, bite, eating), individual learning (due to past experience) and cultural learning (transferred from parents). The role of culture is therefore clear in the animal world: it helps personal learning and instinct.
As the various organs of the body cooperate with each other to carry out physiological activities, so instinct, experience and culture contribute together to form the behavior suited to survival.
To understand if in the animal world a particular course of action is an instinct or was culturally learned, scholars sometimes use to separate the pups from their parents and from any other similar to their birth, taking care of them personally; in this way puppies will not have a way to learn the culture typical of their species and present only instinctive attitudes or learnt from experience. The results of these experiments were surprising: for example, it was discovered that the nightingales grown in this way, instinctively sing, but in very different ways from their kin living in freedom; every nightingale species has a characteristic way of singing that is therefore learned culturally, while the tendency to sing is innate. As the hunting of lions, the song of nightingales is the result of collaboration between instinct and culture.
The complicity between genetic and cultural heritage goes further, however: it is clear that the nightingales could not sing without a voice apparatus genetically evolved for this purpose and the same can be said of human language. To this point, it is important to note that these organs are so important and specialized that may not have evolved in this form either before or after the appearance of singing or language, as earlier they would have been unnecessary, and it is impossible they have developed later in the functions that depend on them. Language and vocal apparatus must therefore have evolved together, mutation after mutation, influencing and perfectly interacting with each other.
Similar experiments with monkeys have shown that their way to communicate, to manage social relationships and to take care of offspring presents a very strong cultural component; grown in isolation, they would refuse to join a flock, to mate and take care of offspring. More accurate experiments have showed both in monkeys and in humans, social and sexual behavior have not only a genetic but also a cultural source.
In the animal world, genetics and cultural evolution therefore are not only similar but also inextricably linked, so that seeking to distinguish them can be misleading. This also applies to humans, but not always: there are cases, as we will see, in which it is essential to consider the two evolutionary types separately, for a proper examination of the phenomenon.


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