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


(Nick Levinson) #1

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?