Wild animals learning human culture and teaching it to other animals often?

Are we humans sometimes teaching culture to wild animals that they are then preserving, using, and passing along to their next generations?

Some years ago, I read of an observation by Jane Goodall, primatologist/ethologist, in a jungle, where she watched primates doing what, given her detailed description (including the primates pointing at the sky and at the ground), read to me like a rain dance modeled on what human cultures that do rain dances likely practiced. I think it plausible that the primates may have noticed the timing practiced by the dancing humans and drew a connection to anticipation of rain but without knowing the theological claims and maybe without knowing the meteorological predicates humans likely knew. I think the primates she reported on were wild.

While that’s the only case like that which comes to mind, there are certainly many cases I’ve heard or read of in which wild animals took humans’ actions into account in shaping their own reactions, reactions that are not mimicry. Examples of the latter include large animals making themselves scarce the day hunting season starts.

But complex mimicry seems rarer, yet likely given the volume and complexity of human-nonhuman contacts. I’d expect that tool-making would catch on, among animals that already make tools but learn about more tools being possible by observing humans who make and use additional tools. I don’t know if raccoons make tools but they likely observe what humans do; I wonder if raccoons learn from human culture and pass it along to their offspring.

Is this common among animal species that have substantial human contact in the wild?

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This is a very good question. It makes me think of the shared history between humans and canines. I have heard that wolfs would have watched humans hunting, perhaps standing off at a distance and by some means later interacting with humans in the hunting process - something which eventually led to their domestication. While the process may well have been led primarily by man’s conditioning, one feels there is room to imagine wolf’s own intergenerational learning in the process. Perhaps not so much by mimicry but certainly but the realisation of mutual benefit - which one might argue is even more complex in a way.
What I mean is, I can’t imagine wolfs, obviously quite vicious in nature, being easy picking to simply be stolen as pups from the pack (the risk of early man thinking “maybe - just maybe if we steal this pup the risk of being attacked will be worth the pay-off of training it to help us hunt”. I imagine the slowly developed relationship between man and wolf would have started with been humans killing various beasts, the wolf’s noticing and following, the humans noticing the wolf’s ate the bones etc they left over, some kind of discussion among the humans around the fact wolfs also hunted like them and some version of an “aha” moment in realising they could work together - early man figuring out ways to coax the wolfs with meat rewards and such to trust them and eventually work with them. Perhaps somewhere in there a human came across an abandoned or hurt pup and adopted it, bringing it up and later realising how awesome it was - that perhaps was an express path to the whole process. Indeed, I can imagine there would have been early “wolf men” and that the whole myth of the werewolf probably has some origin in such wolf men instinctively figuring out how to interact with the wolf’s.
Whatever the exact process - in some way, shape or form - wild wolfs crossed a significant barrier at some point to become dogs - and eventually “man’s best friend”.
Obviously a similar process at some point happened with brumbies becoming domesticated horse - that process perhaps being more interesting in a way (humans have never actually riden on dogs). In a way, one could argue that man’s most intimate friend through the ages has perhaps been the horse even more so than the dog?? Certainly it’s a close call. Dogs were the hunter assistants and the guards and horses the transport. This is not to mention other domesticated animals as well.

Anyway, there’s my two cents on the topic.
I do have some other thoughts on the creation of culture in animals via generation to generation learning eventually turning into ritual behaviour - but that’s a different topic

Hello Nick and Christopher,

Thank you for framing it this way.

In short, speaking from the realm of human-social sciences (HSS), in contrast with the realm of natural-physical sciences (NPS), the notion seems to be that we can “enculturate” or “domesticate” (some) animals, and create a culture that includes and “acknowledges” animals (cf. communication, relationship), but that animals cannot “enculturate” themselves, as “natural, not cultural” beings. Iow, “culture” to be understood the way people mean it in HSS (if that’s the proper home of the “cultural fields”) is not a mechanistic, natural, or automatic process without free will and agency.

Can animals pass on knowledge gained from humans and vice versa? Yes, no doubt. But calling animal “knowledge” as “culture” has more implications and consequences than just accepting that alone. Does that make sense the same to you both or is there further nuance in what you are suggesting?

15th c. definition of “culture”: “cultivation through education, systematic improvement and refinement of the mind” - i.e. having to do with the minds, education and improvement of human beings, not animals. “Agri-culture”, thus differs from the study of “culture”, which is not land- and natural resources-oriented, or animals-oriented, but rather human-oriented.

The mimicry of human culture by animals, does not seem appropriate to speak of as a “cause” or even a “correlation” with an “animal culture”, which would be rather a zoological appropriation of sociological or anthropological language. At least, that’s what I “hear” as someone in SSH, not NPS, when questions like yours in the OP are made. As the philosophical discussion of “origins” in the USA has tended to focus on biology more than culture, it also carries with it a zoological-lean in its orientation. Those whose attention is elsewhere on the spectrum are looking at technology, rather than biology or zoology.

The flattening or reduction of human beings to animals has been tried multiple times throughout history. Check out the “nature fakers” controversy with E. Thompson Seton for one example. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_fakers_controversy

Incidentally, there is a way around this that avoids the conundrum of “what would early man [sic] think or do”? This would be a topic at the edges of speculation in some ways, simply because it involves not just “other minds” that are human, but “other minds” that are not human.

A question to understand context: what raises a desire to consider the notion of “culture” among animals, that doesn’t seek or simply require at the same time to lower the meaning of “human beings” to a zoological or sub-human level?

St. Francis of Assisi prayed for God’s creation and for creatures, not lowering human beings, but raising up animals. Was he wrong to do this, evangelical Protestants on this list? Did/does it look instead to you like lowering humans, instead of raising up animals? It’s not a post-Enlightenment Protestant Christian achievement, after all, though still seems worthy to be counted and assessed in this conversation.


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This does not surprise me at all. I have long been suggesting that our pets have been acquiring some portion of our humanity from their exposure to us.

Of course there are substantial differences which greatly limit their ability to acquire it. And while many seem capable of understanding some portion of what we say, their ability to transmit this to others is much more lacking. We have good evidence of an evolutionary adaptation to the use of language in our species which obviously makes a difference. But many have speculated on the possibility of bridging that gap with our own tinkering. Though now I think about it, I would guess that this would be likely to reveal even more differences which we have yet to comprehend.

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It’s the other way round.

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You mean that so many people tend to see non human animals as machine-like?

My take on Gregory’s take is that anthropomorphization lowers man to the animal, when one of the things it does when it’s not just a metaphor, a just so story about people, is elevate animals to the human and dilutes the human for some I suppose. Most humans get to be more cognitive than all other animals, to what permutational, factorial degree I don’t know. Higher animals grieve. Elephants for example, that make the same arithmetic errors under stress that we do. And cheat. Crows play. Alone. Cows like to be cuddled. Dogs trade. I have watched a peregrine falcon in love with her man. We get to transcend and they don’t?

Dogs are masters of living in the moment. Now that I’m retired I only teach the bare minimum commands. I prefer it be two-way and interactional as far as possible. My heeler cross isn’t so much ‘at my command’ as he is desirous of living in a tandom relationship with me. (Either that or I’ve been assimilated by a heeler.)

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Oooh, we assimilated each other 50,000 years ago to defeat our common enemy: Neanderthals.

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Culture is simply shared knowledge transmitted from generation to generation. Chimps have a form of culture. A mother may teach a young chimp how to strip leaves off a branch to make a tool to fish for termites, but the learning process is painstakingly slow for the simple reason that chimps are emulating the final product, rather than imitating the process. Homo sapiens learn by imitating the process, which is a key difference.

In biological terms, an increase in the ratio of fronto-parietal vs. fronto-temporal connectivity from monkeys to apes to modern humans provides a neurological substrate for the shift from emulation to imitation.(1) “It is imitation that is likely to underlie the possibility of cultural innovation that is so characteristic of modern humans.”(2)

  1. Erin E. Hecht et al., “Process versus product in social learning: comparative diffusion tensor imaging of neural systems for action execution-observation matching in macaques, chimpanzees, and humans

  2. Boeckx and Benitez-Burraco, The Shape of the Human Language-Ready Brain

We’re both flesh-and-blood and share the same common origin. Their transcendence is different than ours yet connected to ours. The creation is groaning in labor pains for the revelation of the sons and daughters of God. In some way our redemption is also their redemption, but don’t ask me to explain how. I’ve already speculated enough for one day.

Exactly. Try petting your dog while it’s eating. The best you’ll get is a glance that says, “Don’t bug me.” Dogs don’t multi-task. They are “single-minded” and lack the foresight to anticipate long-term consequences. All mammals have a prefrontal cortex, which is the center of decision-making and planning, but in most species it is a thin layer.

More recently than that, but @Christopher_Michael’s mention of wolf pups brings up an interesting story. Without looking up dates, it’s more likely that some wolves began hanging around human camps to scavenge food. They proved useful in warning of intruders, and a symbiotic relationship was born. Wolves-then-dogs likely domesticated themselves to us, not vice versa. (Livestock, pack animals, and horses are another story.)

The interesting thing to me is the topic of domestication. Domesticated species generally have a more “juvenile” appearance, which involves such things as a smaller face and droopy ears. The dog looks like a wolf pup. Infant chimps look more human than adults. And, of course, the thing that distinguishes the first human fossil skull at Jebel Irhoud, Morrocco, is that its face is small compared to Neanderthal. Homo sapiens apparently self-domesticated, like the dog.

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All fascinating examples. Of course animals share our emotions. They can’t vocalize them, but even we have trouble putting our emotions into words. Children find it practically impossible. As a parent of toddlers, I can’t tell you how many times I admonished a kid in a meltdown, “Use your words!” In another thread, I mentioned Haidt and his theory that morality developed from our emotional reactions (disgust, anger, contempt). Understanding the roots of our behavior doesn’t detract from our uniqueness nor diminish our commonality, in my opinion.

Where we differ is the notion that pair-bonding is equivalent to human love. Human communication is founded on our inbuilt need to share our psychological states with another. In other words, I tell my spouse about my day because I want her to share my experience. This is a relationship beyond what animals are capable of achieving. It’s also the type of relationship that Paul described in 1 Cor. 13:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness (maturity in Greek) comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

The Christian concept of love is to know the other fully, as God knows us. That goal can only be met in Christ. For now, we see only a reflection …

Aye, by at least 10,000 years, which still puts us in to the end of the Neanderthals.

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I think alot of the explanation for the the human/canine partnership has to do with almost identical hunting strategies. While small game can be hunted by individuals, large, dangerous game requires a group effort for those predators that hunt those types of animals–think wooly mammoth–and both wolves and humans hunted that type game in large, cooperative groups. Second, this hunting process was not quick or easy. As brutal as it sounds and as it is, the large game is tough and resilient and its predators are smaller, meaning no quick kills. The animals were attacked, wounded, chased and worn down over miles and even days of continuous effort. Unlike the big cats, which can also hunt in groups, canines and humans share long distance stamina. The human, in fact, is the best long distance runner and the canines are close behind. Wolf packs and human packs would have been hunting the same prey with the same strategy, making a partnership through domestication of wolf pups a natural outcome.

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Interesting thoughts.

I like the idea of wolves watching us hunt and then finding a benefit in joining our pack.

Culture includes learning in any direction, not just intergenerationally downward.

Process vs. end design: good issue.

Surprised that, three years later, this topic got its first answer. I forgot I had posted this. Thanks for pitching in.

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Resurrecting a dead post. Sorry, but I ran across something fascinating on the domestication of dogs today.

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There are some things that come to my mind.

The bird tests where birds were taught that if they placed coins in a feeder it would give them food. We taught the birds that and other birds learned it watching it. ( though to be honest I’ve only always heard this snd have never investigated it )

But I feel like culture is the wrong word. I think they can learn from us and know the benefits of it.

For example if I leave my bedroom door open , my cats mostly won’t try to enter. They just stare. If I prop it open with a cat tower, they both instantly run into my bedroom knowing I won’t remove them. They can be back there. They can mostly be back there except when I’m eating because they always want to sit next to my food.

Animals can definitely feel things. I don’t know how far they can do. I’ve heard elephants will sometimes walk way out of their way and visit the spot where one died previously.

Nice find! I’ve always found story of the dog/human collaboration fascinating. Looks like that harsh environment put pressure on us and the friendlier wolves to collaborate. I’d always read that domestication probably happened numerous times and some time ago there was open speculation regarding which canids may have contributed to our modern four-footed soul mates. The fact that we and dogs have managed to meld so well probably led us to underestimate how challenging and unlikely domestication might really be.

One of the take-aways of reading Guns, Germs and Steel was that people in places other than eurasia weren’t just slow on the uptake in failing to domesticate the local fauna. Turns out only so many species are suited to it, and we eurasians won that jackpot. So dogs turn out to fit the pattern after all. There was wild canids weren’t all just too happy to take up residence near humans.

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