Monday, August 22, 2005

Cultured Chimps   posted by DavidB @ 8/22/2005 03:39:00 AM

Some new research provides evidence that chimpanzees show 'cultural conformity': they follow the learned behaviour patterns prevalent in their group even though they are aware of effective alternatives. A report from the Guardian is here. There are several others on the net.

I think this could be important. Several experts on 'cultural evolution' have argued that conformism among humans is the result of selection between groups, but their only argument is that 'there is no alternative'. They will now need to show that the same argument applies to chimps.

Added: to expand slightly on that last point, the group-selection theory requires that groups containing a genetic tendency towards cultural conformity should be more successful as groups than those which do not contain such a tendency. Among humans, this requirement is not implausible, because culture is obviously very important among humans, and because cultural traits vary widely among different groups. (Whether they vary widely among locally competing groups is more doubtful, but I won’t pursue that now.) Human groups also often act as groups, so that conformity might well be beneficial in inter-group competition.

It is not clear that the same can be said for chimps. Chimps do have some culturally acquired traits, and they do show some variation between different chimp populations. Notably, some populations use stones to crack nuts, and others don’t. But culture is far less developed among chimps than among humans, and it isn’t clear that cultural conformity would be likely to affect group survival among chimps in the way that the group selection theory would require. Of course, if conformity is beneficial to individuals, there is nothing for group selection to explain.

Update from Razib: Here is the article in Nature. Another in Scientific American. And finally, a release from Eureka Alert.