Culture war in the deep blue sea: Science’s contentious quest to understand whales and dolphins

Excerpted from “The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.”

1546437_409750012490668_1699000806_nThe idea that culture is important for nonhumans, including whales, has a history of controversy. In the 1930s–40s, biology was given a strong theo­retical basis in the form of evolution through natural selection—natural selection as first suggested by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and then formalized with genes as the units of selection in the modern syn­thesis. The modern synthesis was not particularly about behavior, but be­havioral theorists in and around the 1970s realized it could be applied to behavior as well as morphological, physiological, or anatomical features. This new field was called behavioral ecology or, largely in the United States, sociobiology. Advocated comprehensively in E. O. Wilson’s book “Sociobiol­ogy” and summarized eloquently by Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene,” be­havioral ecology made a fine job of explaining why animals do what they do. Its application to human behavior was, and is, controversial. For the study of nonhuman behavior, however, behavioral ecology became a hugely successful scientific paradigm. From the 1980s onward, scientific papers describing the behavior of animals invariably started and ended with how the research was situated within the theory of behavioral ecology. We, and most of our scientific colleagues, found the theory very appealing and felt it well explained the behavior of animals. In the field of animal be­havior, behavioral ecology became “normal science,” in the terminology of the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. Suggesting that culture could be a major driver of the behavior of nonhumans challenges this paradigm— making it “revolutionary science,” according to Kuhn—and, as with other challenges, was resisted. However, in contrast to the opposition facing most other scientific revolutions, the attacks are not coming from the stalwarts of “normal science.” Since the inception of their theory, behavioral ecolo­gists and sociobiologists have largely accepted the possibility that culture might have an important role in determining behavior, along with genes.

E. O. Wilson, for instance, cowrote “Genes, Minds and Culture: The Coevolu­tionary Process” and Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” the cultural analog of the gene.

This is not to say that proposing culture as an explanation for animal behavior does not meet resistance from our closest colleagues, but it does so only from the angle of questioning what the evidence is that a particu­lar behavior results from some kind of social information. There are now, however, enough solidly demonstrated examples that this does in fact hap­pen in many species for the study of social learning to be accepted as a valid and growing field within mainstream animal behavior science. No, while behavioral ecologists may question the evidence and suggest alternative explanations, they are generally not appalled by the very notion of chim­panzee or whale culture. The fiercest critics come mostly from anthro­pology and psychology. Here, it is the very concept of animal culture that is anathema, not the nature of the evidence. It is part of the paradigm in most of the social sciences, insofar as the social sciences have paradigms, that humans are unique in having culture or, at least, in being overwhelmingly cultured. Culture in other species, if it exists, is an epiphenomenon, not ter­ribly important. It is the challenge to this paradigm that is being resisted.

Critics of all stripes argue against the evidence put forward. They pick away at the (necessarily) spotty evidence from field studies, suggesting that this or that pattern of behavior could have arisen genetically or through environmental correlations. In their laboratory experiments, chimpanzees don’t imitate and rats don’t teach—thus: no culture. On the other side of the debate, field scientists are convinced that culture is a major part of the lives of the animals that they study, but how can they show it?

People have thought about nonhumans having culture for a long time. Aristotle noted that at least some birdsong was learned. Darwin thought many animals possessed “inherited habits,” and although he did not know how inheritance worked, his conception of these inherited habits was very similar to what we now think of as culture. Following Darwin, many of those who studied the behavior of animals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries believed that socially learned traditions were impor­tant in shaping the behavior of at least birds and mammals. However, once genes had become central to biology in the modern synthesis, thoughts that culture might have a role in animals other than humans faded. For a while it was nearly all about genes.

Full article: Salon

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