Wednesday, November 27, 2002

WHAT IS CULTURE?

Crashing the culture club
Animals may pass down 'traditions,' but is it culture?
By Cynthia Mills, Globe Correspondent, 11/26/2002

In the rainforests of Africa, when the rains come, chimpanzees dance. No one knows why they do it, but they do. And different chimpanzee groups dance with different styles. In Gombe National Park in Tanzania, the chimp rain dance is loud and frenzied. In Tai Forest National Park in the Ivory Coast, the chimpanzees dance in silent slow motion, mimicking the movements of aggression displays, like a great ape version of Tai Chi....

Could animals be more complex than we thought? Could they be capable of culture - maybe not ballet or Beethoven, but something similar to what we have? What is culture, anyway? The most basic definition states that culture is behavior that is learned from another species member: It is not instinctive or hard-wired; it is not passed on genetically. As Frans de Waal, ethologist and author of ''The Ape and the Sushi Master,'' stated: ''The critical issue is: Is there knowledge and behavior being transmitted from one generation to the next?'' His answer: There is, and, thus, in his opinion, animals have culture....

Primatologists studying chimpanzees have tallied 65 separate behaviors that are either done differently by different troops, or done by some but not all troops.

Chimpanzees in Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania start mutual grooming fests by clasping each other's hands in a chimpanzee high-five. Chimps in Kibale National Park in Uganda groom clasped hand to foot; Gombe chimps do neither. Tai chimps use twigs to catch ants and then lick the ants off the twig. Gombe chimps wipe the ants off the twigs with their fingers first, before transferring them to their mouths....

Some chimpanzees use a combination of a stone hammer and wood or stone anvil to crack palm nuts. Some chimps even add a third element, a stone, to stabilize the anvil. Still, that is nowhere near even the most simple of human cultures.

But human culture had to start somewhere - and most ethologists believe we can see that start mirrored in animal cultures. They believe what Darwin said in ''The Descent of Man'': ''The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.''