Re: Definition of Culture

John Cole. (jrc@TEI.UMASS.EDU)
Thu, 15 Aug 1996 21:31:30 -0400

On Thu, 15 Aug 1996, Jesse S. Cook III wrote:

> To the best of my knowledge and belief, no nonhuman animal *teaches* any
> other animal. Sure, some animals are "teachable" but only by humans. Other
> animals learn by imitation.

The amateur's remark:
But isn't it what raising children and growing up for many animals
(creatures) is about ie learning about how to survive?
Lack of this phase of being taught when little surely contributes to the
problem of "reintroducing" animals to their environment which in fact was
not theirs in the first place as they did not grow up in it.

The debate I find very interesting and I do save all the mail!
reply by JRC:
Well,animals DO teach each other--even if it is called "immitation." According
to Elizabeth Thomas, for example (to cross-fertilise btwn threads!) argues
that cats bring us dead birds and voles and mice in an effort to teach us to
hunt! (It is interesting to think of oneself as a sort of failed cat, but
that's a different argument!)

More basically, so many experiments show that animals raised from birth
without natural "teachers" do not mature as competent members of their
species! And a huge amount of human learning is immitative. *I* can learn
almost anything, once SHOWN how to do it so I can immitate it; I doubt if this
is peculiar to me! I can teach someone stone toolmaking basics in hours, and
I doubt it entails any verbiage at all--perhaps grunts of approval or
disapproval or encouragement...but certainly not via a highly verbalized
explanation, and I assume that prehistoric hominids learned a lot in the sam
immitative way and that it is not because I am uniquely inarticulate.

This is NOT to say that humans are "just one more animal," and I think Cook
may overstate my efforts to see that behavior, artifacts, etc. be considered
integral parts of culture as somehow denigrating culture or human uniqueness.
His assertion that chimps do not hunt routinely, for example, has been shown
erroneous by research over the past ten years or so, and chimps and other
animals are found to be making and using toools and teaching each other about
it. This does not attack "humanness" or advocate a sociobiology which treats
all species as simply "behaving."

Cook has also noted that my argument against human exceptionalism appeals only
to fundamentalists who have little interest in anthropology. In fact, much of
the early history of social science, philosophy, anthropology, etc. was
devoted to determining "What KIND of 'piece of work is Man?'" Anthropologists
have traditionally been much more broad-minded than most of Western
culture--but they have not been immune to the lure of exceptionalism,
species-centrism, and sometimes even their stated enemy, ethnocentrism--they
(we) have been products of our own cultures, even though I take pride as an
anthropologist in our efforts to transcend this.

--John R. Cole