Nonhuman Culture

Now You See It Now You Don’t

Considerations of nonhuman cultures are developing rapidly in some corners of the natural sciences. The subject is highlighted in recent efforts to rethink evolutionary theory, partly by suggesting that sociality plays a role in natural selection. This is heady stuff and challenges some long-standing, deeply-held assumptions about how life works. Using culture to rethink life means reimagining the way biology functions and evolution operates. As a concept in the social sciences, “culture” was developed in contrast to all this—as not reducible to biology and in some sense untethered from evolutionary dynamics. That’s fine for humans, but framing the matter more broadly, in terms of the hosts of other social species, several marvelous questions arise. What happens when life (biology and evolution) becomes social?[1] How does life operate differently under a mode of sociality? How does emergent phenomenon, like sociality, reframe the mechanistic dimensions of life under selection; does it change and behave differently? These questions are all implicit in arguing to see social dimensions of evolution—life is not entirely bounded by individuals and their respective forms of fitness.

An equally interesting matter, though, is the yet limited way in which culture is being mobilized and invoked. Its deployment is not pervasive and largely seems concentrated within ethological domains and efforts to theorize an “extended evolutionary synthesis.” A contour of that limit can be seen by juxtaposing two recent journal collections, one showcasing a series of efforts at updating and extending cultural evolution as a theoretical focus and the other compiling a range of new work in behavioral ecology. Culture is key to the first but absent in the second, even though both feature an attention to social species. This contrasting presence and absence is a useful gauge for comprehending how research on nonhuman culture is advancing.

The recent Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the Natural Academy of Sciences, “The Extension of Biology Through Culture,” is a good place to start. The proceedings were published in a July 2017 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The colloquium joined proponents of two lines of inquiry in conversation—ethologists and evolutionary theorists. Ethological projects are finding increasing instances of nonhuman culture, but these have yet to influence mainstream writing on evolution. Partly this is a matter of intellectual history; the studies that establish nonhuman cultures largely developed after the intellectual foundation for the “modern synthesis” view of evolution was established. The colloquium sought to address this lag. As organizers wrote, “one major goal of the present PNAS issue is to illustrate the scope of the findings on animal culture that now merit integration into evolutionary biology at large.” The other dimension here is the strand of theorizing developed by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman in the 1970s and 1980s, postulating parallels between genes and culture, subjecting the later to analysis via population genetics. “Complexity” marks the ways culture both exceeds and extends this framework. Further elaboration, via concepts such as niche construction, allows for culture to make dual reference, to nonhumans as well.

The turn to nonhuman cultures featured in this forum seems to be two-fold: there are limits to how cultural evolution can be demonstrated in humans, and there is a surge of findings on cultural transmission in other animals.[2] Frankly, nonhumans fit more cozily within the reductive framework of evolutionary thought, which fixates on simple mechanisms (mutations) that tweak the capacity for fitness in an environmental setting—genetics, basically. Culture exceeds genetics. If most complex human behaviors can’t be explained by genes, then this large superstructure shaping our behaviors and beliefs certainly cannot be, either. But culture can be systematically observed and analyzed, largely because it’s evident in patterns of interactions, between and among individuals in relation to their environment. These patterns importantly precede individuals and endure after their passing; in this sense, it is external to the subjective, sensorial forms of embodiment. Indeed, “cultural transmission” is a focus here because it notably extends (and exceeds) a dominant register of analysis, “social learning,” exactly because it is not reducible to individuals’ actions or reactions. Where social learning focuses on the interactions of two individuals (a knower and a learner), cultural transmission is about how what passes between these two then extends across a whole group of individuals, becoming “traditions.” These were found in birds, initially, and now appear in other taxa.

Now, for a glimpse of behavioral ecology, as condensed in a recent special issue of Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, showcasing a host of current approach to studying social species. Of the four prevailing foci for studying animal behavior (development, mechanisms, function and evolution), these articles concentrate on the latter two, providing a useful contrast to the works on cultural evolution above. In these frames, sociality is a “fitness-relevant behavior,” and social systems function by both generating and mediating forms of conflict and cooperation. Researchers are interested in processes of collecting, communicating and assessing of information involved with animal decision making. (They are also cognizant of how this increasingly occurs in “the often novel situations created by human induced environmental change.”) Emblematic of these themes is guest editor Andrew Sih’s co-authored article, “A conceptual framework for understanding behavioral responses to HIREC,” or human-induced rapid environmental change. They review and assess models for predicting “responses to novel organisms (e.g., exotic predators, foods or ecotourists), to habitat fragmentation or to climate change,” highlighting “the importance of understanding how organisms use multiple sources of information (multiple cues, or genetic versus environmental information).” This catches my attention because culture exactly involve the generation and management of, as well as responses to, multiple competing and overlapping information flows.

So as I read these works, I was surprised not to find culture invoked. The opportunities seem manifold. The article by Patricelli and Hebets addresses the diverse complexity of animal communication—multi-modal forms of signaling, featuring adaptive plasticity and a variety of ways for visualizing complex signals. These are being rendered accessible through new observational technologies that frame “the critical role of the receiver’s sensory, perceptual and cognitive processes in shaping signal form.” This sounds like the process of cultural interpretation to me, which is further underscored as the authors “champion a systems approach for integrating information on communication.” So to with articles about the origin of care (Royle et al.) or how care extends across species lines (Manna and Hauber),[3] and questions about “how social learning can either be an inertial force via inter-generational traditions or an agent of change (including the all-important response to modern environmental change) when it promotes the spread of innovations.” Croft et al.—in discussing feedback processes between individual behavior and social network structures in fish and birds—note that “even higher order interactions (those between groups or social communities) are likely to play a key role in how individuals interact.” So why isn’t culture here?

There’s a range of institutional and intellectual reasons why not, but I’m interested in the matter of theorizing. Plainly, the theoretical frame in this collection is one dominant in the natural sciences—a combination of economics and evolution. Cost-benefit approaches on one hand, and a focus on individual fitness on the other. Culture, in anthropological terms, may yet be too unwieldy for these applications. That version of the concept is not just too complicated, it also focuses on questions of interpretive work; as in “meaning,” and it’s not clear if nonhumans have that—versus “associations” or “representations” of stimuli. Then there are question of “cognition” and “intelligence”; “collective intelligence,” as addressed in cultural evolution theory still has to contend with the equation of culture with big brained mammals. But it seems to me that a next step here could be asking about the interpretive work of these nonhuman subjects, as something more nuanced (as relational and place-based and context-dependent) than simply “information processing.” This would entail imagining fieldwork frames focused on local, socially conditioned interpretive work, asking how associations are learned and stabilized as conventions. But this also involves a reorientation around the role of theory.

With cultural analysis, the emphasis is not on the predictive capacity of theory but on something more approximating the Greek term’s original connotation, “to see.” Social theory aims to make visible the working of largely invisible forces and dynamics, those that may be rendered legible though analysis but are not visually evident to social subjects. Theorizing-as-seeing informs and derives from a more diffuse sense of “observation,” as with participant-observation in fieldwork (longer-lasting, focused on relationships). Cultural anthropologists cling to a romantic notion of this kind of seeing, one that requires a trained, sensitive human observer to access the local realms of meaning. But in reading this collection of behavioral ecology and thinking about the rapid advance of observational technologies, I began glimpsing new ways to advance ethnographic traditions of fieldwork to incorporate nonhuman cultures.

This inkling arose as I read in Croft et al how “the recent development of animal-borne tags and computer vision that can be used to automate the collection of social associations, has and will continue to revolutionise our understanding of animal social networks.” These authors are firmly ensconced in analyzing “costs and benefits” and mechanisms. But these new technologies suggest a doubled capacity for seeing: certainly more visual data but also potential access to subjective spheres of nonhumans, by objectifying the sights and sounds that accord with their navigation of social relations and settings. They write:

Social interaction data can be combined with other bio-logging data such as accelerometer, heart rate and body temperature to provide real-time monitoring of behaviour and health, which provides many exciting avenues for future research. A current limitation of tags for automating the recording of social contact is that they do not currently tell us of the type of interaction (e.g. affiliative, aggressive, mating etc.). However, we anticipate that data on social contact could be combined with data from sensors, such as accelerometers, to infer the nature of a social interaction (e.g. aggressive, grooming etc.).

Certainly, such inferences will be well grounded. But it bears noting that what cultural theory brings into view is that such categories are often neither fixed nor essential—affiliation and aggression are evaluated and responded to by social subjects who have to interpret “signals” that may be ensnared in a great deal of noise or just be ambiguous. As well, this interpretive work might be informed by relational sensibilities, developed by watching other group members respond to similar actions or intimations of actions. Seeing culturally in such settings may arise not just from these new technologies but approaching the data they generate from a different theoretical orientation.

The question left hanging here is what cultural anthropologists might think of all this; would they be interested in engaging in discussions of how to theorize and apply culture across social species? At the moment, this seems highly unlikely. The phrase “cultural evolution” still strikes most cultural anthropologists as an abhorrent reminder of concepts such as “primitive culture” or “cultural Darwinism,” from our founding figure, E. B. Tylor. Too, as noted above, cultural theory has consistently articulated culture as a dynamic that it is neither reducible to nor explainable by evolution. What might change their minds or at least get their attention? Something that Creanza et al reference in their survey article, “Cultural evolutionary theory”. These authors point to the problem of genetic determinism pervading popular culture, fueled by ancestry tests and spurious claims about “genes” for all kinds of complex behaviors; they decry “a misleading public portrayal of these traits as being predetermined by genetics.” This is most pressing in terms of racial thinking. Crenza et al counsel that “in the study of gene-culture interactions, faulty logic or racial biases about ‘causes’ of human difference must be cautiously guarded against.” Cultural anthropologists, concerned with critiquing such faulty racial logic, studiously adhere to social constructionist stances, which regard biology largely as fodder for ideological projections that seek to naturalize inequality and privilege. This approach has its limits, certainly, and it’s not clear that “social construction” has much of a purchase with wider audiences. What cultural anthropologists might gain from these discussions is a more effective way to talk about biology. Who among them would not like to maintain that “there are few aspects of human biology that have not been shaped by our culture”? Arguing and demonstrating this point requires thinking in evolutionary terms, certainly, but also developing a more robust articulation of the culture concept and of cultural theory, generally. Doing so may well be best advanced in relation to nonhumans.


1. For some cursory answers, see Meloni 2016.

2. I’ve addressed the panoply of developments of research on nonhuman cultures elsewhere (Hartigan 2015); here I will focus on how this subject plays into and is possibly reanimating theorizing on cultural evolution.

3. See Hartigan 2017.


Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., and M. W. Feldman. 1973. “Cultural Versus Biological Inheritance: Phenotypic Transmission from Parents to Children. (A Theory of the Effect of Parental Phenotypes on Children’s Phenotypes).” American Journal of Human Genetics 25 (6): 618–37.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., and M. W. Feldman. 1981. Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Creanza, Nicole, Oren Kolodny, and Marcus W. Feldman. 2017. “Cultural Evolutionary Theory: How Culture Evolves and Why It Matters.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (30): 7782–89. doi:10.1073/pnas.1620732114.

Croft, Darren P., Safi K. Darden, and Tina W. Wey. 2016. “Current Directions in Animal Social Networks.” In “Behavioral Ecology,” edited by Andrew Sih and Alex Kacelnik. Special issue, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 12 (December): 52–58. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.09.001.

Hartigan, John. 2015. Aesop's Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach. Forerunners: Ideas First. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

———. 2017. Care of the Species: Races of Corn and the Science of Plant Biodiversity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Manna, Thomas J., and Mark E. Hauber. 2016. “Recognition, Speciation, and Conservation: Recent Progress in Brood Parasitism Research among Social Insects.” In “Behavioral Ecology,” edited by Andrew Sih and Alex Kacelnik. Special issue, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 12 (December): 1–5. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.07.005.

Meloni, Maurizio. 2016. “From Boundary-Work to Boundary Object: How Biology Left and Re-Entered the Social Sciences.” Sociological Review Monographs 64 (1): 61–78. doi:10.1002/2059-7932.12013.

Patricelli, Gail L., and Eileen A. Hebets. 2016. “New Dimensions in Animal Communication: The Case for Complexity.” In “Behavioral Ecology,” edited by Andrew Sih and Alex Kacelnik. Special issue, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 12 (December): 80–89. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.09.011.

Royle, Nick J., Suzanne H. Alonzo, and Allen J. Moore. 2016. “Co-Evolution, Conflict and Complexity: What Have We Learned about the Evolution of Parental Care Behaviours?” In “Behavioral Ecology,” edited by Andrew Sih and Alex Kacelnik. Special issue, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 12 (December): 30–36. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.08.004.

Sih, Andrew, Pete C. Trimmer, and Sean M. Ehlman. 2016. “A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Behavioral Responses to HIREC.” In “Behavioral Ecology,” edited by Andrew Sih and Alex Kacelnik. Special issue, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 12 (December): 109–14. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.09.014.

Whiten, Andrew, Francisco J. Ayala, Marcus W. Feldman, and Kevin N. Laland. 2017. “The Extension of Biology through Culture.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (30): 7775–81. doi:10.1073/pnas.1707630114.