2.b.1 – What are the origins of culture?

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January 19, 2010 — Riccardo Sabellotti - Giacinto Sabellotti


What are the origins of culture?

By observing the cultural transmission in animals, we may develop some hypotheses about the birth of our cultural history: we know that animals learn from the world around them, the puppies of mammals also learn from their parents and this can be done because the mother, and sometimes even his father, spend much time with them after birth, for feeding them and protect them. The parent-child relationship, born for protection and nourishment needs, then took an educational role.
It is known that in family traditions, the genetic and cultural heritage evolve together, perfectly integrating; over time this has led to develop a genetic predisposition of puppies to learn from their parents and of parents to teach children.
By the innate curiosity of puppies, by the desire to play (drilling movements, fight  etc..), by the instinct to explore the world and the need to follow their parents in search of safety, new behaviors have developed: exploring the world under the guidance of parents, looking at what they do and then imitate them.
The development of imitation was not a simple step; many animals, even with good learning ability derived from experience, are in great difficulties to imitate the strategies of others, which suggests that imitation is an activities much more complex than it appears and therefore requires the development of new capacity by the brain. Some studies also show that in the animal world, imitation is usually combined with a strong component of personal experimentation, it is imitated the minimum necessary to then proceed alone, which demonstrates how imitation is for animals a very challenging and costly  activity that should be limited as much as possible.
When the first herds of mammals developed, new frontiers for imitation and development of culture opened: since then, in fact, the puppies had the opportunity to learn from all the members of the herd and not just from their parents; this opportunity, which, in most cases, is used only occasionally and is therefore a resource remained marginal in the animal world, lays behind many developments in human culture.
Even in parents some changes developed: to the loving parental care directed to the puppies, new teaching capacities were added; mammals in fact often play with their kids making the game even more instructive; during the game, parents have the opportunity to show, show off indeed, the right attitudes and behavior, as the father playing ball with his children or helping them in the construction of buildings with plastic bricks; should also be reminded the all-important ability to reward or punish those puppies according to their conduct: rewards descended directly from the cuddles of parental care; punishments stem instead from aggressive attitudes, typical of fights between adults, appropriately and substantially modified in order not to seriously injure the children.
For what concerns monkeys, the babies live the first part of their lives perpetually clinging to their mothers; during this phase with a so intimate and fixed contact, the puppies can learn many things: how to interpret the behavior of the mother and of the members of the flock, how to manage public relations and coexistence in the community, what are the best fruits, how to build a shelter, how to use certain tools, how to recognize and produce signals typical of their species, up to use a real language made of gestures and sounds, although not articulated in such a way as to form a complex speech.
The animals that show more ability to imitate, more communication skills and greater intelligence, such as parrots, dolphins and monkeys, are all social animals, and this indicates that the social and flock life are important and necessary, although not sufficient, for the development of the above mentioned abilities. These abilities are also closely linked: in community, communication is often achieved through a conventional code, culturally transmitted, which requires some form of imitation and intelligence.
By observing today’s world, we can’t see the later stages of our cultural history as all our closest relatives, the hominids, are extinct long ago.  



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