Feb 6th 2013

Tool Use, Culture and Human Hubris

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, demonstrate something awfully close to culture, once considered uniquely human. Chimps toy with cultural evolution through tool use, also once regarded as exclusive to our species. A study published on January 30, 2013, in the journal PLOS ONE demonstrated how a cohort of chimps wise in the ways of using a straw to suck juice out of a container can pass on that knowledge by demonstrating the technique to naive chimps.

We humans have always thought of ourselves as particularly intelligent, special, above all other animals. Religion tells us that only we were made in the image of god. The son of god comes in the form of a man, not chimp or weasel. We proudly note our compassion, humor, altruism and impressive capacity to generate language, mathematics, tools, art, and music. In citing this self-serving list to bolster our claim to exalted status, filtered expediently to our benefit, we assume that humans possess, and other animals utterly lack, these honorable traits or capabilities. We ignore the inconvenient fact that we choose to define and measure intelligence in terms of our greatest strengths. We arbitrarily exclude from the definition of intelligence higher brain functions in other animals. We make bold claims of our uniqueness and divine status, only to find over time that each claim ultimately fails as we advance our understanding of animal intelligence and behavior. There is no better example than tool use and culture. (All the examples below are from numerous scientific journals and books, all of which can be found in the bibliography in Chapter 3 of Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World).

Tool Use

Tool use at one point was indeed long considered solely the providence of human ingenuity. But in fact non-human primates and birds commonly use tools, mainly to gather food. Chimpanzees, for example, regularly use stems as tools and can even pound stones with purpose, although they have never mastered flint-making. Chimps also use leaves as toilet paper. Egyptian vultures will search up to 50 yards for a rock to use to smash an ostrich egg. Green herons drop a small object onto the surface of the water to attract fish, which are fooled into thinking prey is nearby. The heron then turns the table and makes a meal of the unsuspecting fish.

If an elephant is unable to reach some itching part of his body with his trunk, the nearest tree often serves to relieve the problem. Just as often, however, an itchy elephant will pick up a long stick and give himself a good scratch with that instead. If one stick is insufficiently long he will look for one better suited to the task.

With what appears to be clear intention, elephants have been observed to throw or drop large rocks and logs on the live wires of electric fences, either breaking the wire or loosening it such that it makes contact with the earth, thus shorting out the fence. Elephants are undoubtedly clueless about electron flow, but have mastered the use of a tool to avoid its unpleasant consequences.

Some animals have graduated from tool use to tool fabrication. On the Galapagos Island, one of the many finch species made famous by Darwin uses a cactus spine as a spear to pry grubs from tree branches. Once this woodpecker finch has procured his shish kabob, he holds the skewer under foot to munch on the tasty snack. The bird will then carry the spine to another tree looking for the next meal. This finch, though, is not always happy with what nature provides, and improves the cactus spine for its purpose. One finch was observed shaping a forked spine into a single spike, and others shorten the spine to just the right length for probing and holding. Some finches can learn to use the tool by watching others do so.

These feats are noteworthy, but provide only examples of one animal using one tool for one purpose. Even more impressive is the learned use of a tool set. Chimpanzees in East and West Africa sequentially use four tools to obtain honey, all gathered together for that specific purpose. They start with a battering stick, then a use a chisel-like stick, followed by a hard-pointed stick, finally ending with a long slender flexible dip stick to pull out the honey. Each tool is used in a specific sequence, and sometimes made to order by clipping, peeling, stripping or splitting the wood to the desired specifications.

New Caledonian crows are famous for their ingenious tool fabrication, both in the wild and in captivity. Betty, a female crow, was filmed taking a piece of wire and trying to use it to grab some food at the bottom of a narrow tube. After several unsuccessful attempts, she removed the wire, fashioned a hook on the end, and subsequently used her new weapon to grab the food with ease. In the wild, these crows make an impressive variety of tools using a wide range of materials for diverse purposes. These birds actually shape different hooks for different tasks. This is tool use by any definition.

Culture

Until recently, the transmission of information through culture, or socially learned tradition, was thought to be found only among humans. Many considered this the "last stand" in proving human uniqueness. Culture seems to be clearly a uniquely human invention. In some human cultures, two people greeting each other will bow, where in others the two will shake hands. Some kiss once or twice on the cheek. Some societies prefer vodka over wine. Culture defines the context of our lives.

But in the 1950s, a few brave researchers demonstrated that culture was indeed found in other species, although this conclusion was resisted for several decades.

On the small Japanese island of Koshima, researcher Kinji Imanishi observed one day that a young female macaque named Imo took some precious sweet potatoes that were inconveniently covered with sand to a nearby stream to wash them off before eating them. That alone was interesting because the behavior had never before been seen. But more impressive, over time the entire colony adopted the innovation, and their descendants wash their potatoes even today because mothers continue to pass down the new tradition to the next generation.

Imo and her colony are not just an isolated example. In 1963, in the Nagano Mountains of Japan, another young female macaque named Mukubili waded into a hot spring to get some food that had been thrown in the water. The warm water was apparently a delightful respite from the bitter cold mountain air, and a few other young monkeys climbed in. Much as in human cultures, at first the behavior caught on only with the youth, but the old folks eventually got hip. The behavior is now well established in the entire troop, and has been passed on through many generations. In another example of youth-driven culture, some juveniles learned to roll and throw snowballs. That has no survival value, but is fun. The practice spread to others in the troop and is now a common play behavior.

The indisputable conclusion that other species have culture, however, is not the result of a few casual anecdotes or isolated case studies. Instead, presence of culture in other animals is seen as the result of carefully recorded observation by disparate scientists over many decades. In 1999, a group of researchers got together to compare notes from their years of field work with chimpanzees. Eventually they documented 39 examples of behaviors present in one group of chimps but not another, even when the groups lived in similar environments and had access to the same foods and potential tools. Cultural differences were seen in courting behavior, hunting strategies, tool use, social grooming, medicinal plant use and vocalizations. The behaviors were passed on from one generation to the other within a social group, and not reinvented anew with each generation. More recent work with orangutans has shown similar examples of culture and social learning. The difference in behaviors between groups was even more striking in orangutans, which interact with neighboring groups less than chimpanzees. 
In the final blow to the notion that culture is somehow uniquely human, various forms of social learning within and between generations have been demonstrated beyond primates, including in birds, rats, elephants, whales (in addition to composing), and perhaps even in fish.

Get Over Ourselves

In defining our uniqueness, we are using a bizarre circular logic, working backward from a desired result. We look at all of our capabilities as humans, and then declare that those very sets of capabilities are what make us better than other animals, if not the image of god himself. But even when we give ourselves a big handicap by creating self-serving definitions that we know beforehand will prove advantageous, the categories of "uniquely human" talents are shrinking rapidly as we learn more about other animals and their adaptive behaviors. Characteristics previously considered special to our species have eventually been found, at least to some degree, and often with some humor, elsewhere in the animal kingdom. We see in the animal kingdom examples of impressive brain development, intelligence, self-awareness, empathy, social organization, even some ability in mathematics, as well as of course culture and tool use.

We are faced with the need to combat a fierce bias. People tend to believe that our species is superior to and separate from the animal kingdom, that we are the end point of the evolution of life on earth. That notion is not only false but extraordinarily dangerous. It is this hubris and arrogance that drives much of our most unsustainable behaviors. If we are special we need not respect natural resources put here by god for our use; nor must we protect animals we believe to be our inferiors. Yet biological reality on the ground is quite different from this species-centric view: human are nothing but a normal consequence of natural selection, and certainly not the pinnacle of evolution. We are nothing special, and bacteria are the proof. We desperately look for traits only we possess, like tool use and culture, only to be thwarted by animal ingenuity. It is time we got over ourselves and adopted a more humble attitude about our role in the biosphere. The chimps are watching as they sip their juice.



Book Introduction:

Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World

by Jeff Schweitzer and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara 

June 22, 2009
"Beyond Cosmic Dice" offers a new perspective on the purpose and meaning of life free from any divine influence. By rejecting the false premises of religion, readers are free to pave their own road for a better life.


Jeff Schweitzer
 spent much of his youth underwater pursuing his lifelong fascination with marine life. He obtained his doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography through his neurobehavioral studies of sharks and rays. He has published in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection and aviation. Jeff and his wife live in central Texas, moving there after retiring from the White House as Assistant Director for International Science and Technology.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara is an evolutionary biologist with a doctorate from the University of California. He serves as a marine policy advisor to various national and international bodies, and has recently represented Italy in multilateral environmental negotiations. Through appearances on television and radio, and the publication of articles and books, he has been striving to increase public awareness of marine conservation. Giuseppe lives with his family in Northern Italy.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the US presidential election barely a month away, former Vice President Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defense, and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions."
Sep 29th 2020
While today's mounting global disruptions have accelerated an ongoing shift in global power dynamics, neither China's rise nor the emergence of COVID-19 can be blamed for the West's lost primacy. The United States and the United Kingdom took care of that on their own, with a complacent Europe watching it happen.
Sep 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is clear: the world cannot trust Xi’s dictatorship. The sooner we recognize this and act together, the sooner the Beijing bullies will have to behave better. The world will be safer and more prosperous for it."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Four years of political turmoil under Trump may well end with massive violence akin to a civil war. Trump is priming his base to act violently, and with over 390 million firearms in the hands of Americans, one can only imagine the calamitous consequences if violence is to erupt between his supporters and those who oppose him..... The Republican leadership in every state and every municipality are the prime body that can stop this potential calamity from occurring. Time is of the essence. Should the Republican Party as a whole fall short of taking a stand against Trump at this juncture, they will subject the nation to turmoil unseen since the Civil War. Not a single Republican leader will be able to claim that he or she were not warned."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I continue to expect this broad dollar index to plunge by as much as 35% by the end of 2021. This reflects three considerations: rapid deterioration in US macroeconomic imbalances, the ascendancy of the euro and the renminbi as viable alternatives, and the end of that special aura of American exceptionalism that has given the dollar Teflon-like resilience for most of the post-World War II era."
Sep 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Covid-19 essentially hit the “fast forward” button on emerging trends in a variety of sectors of national economies, hastening the demise of the shopping mall, laying bare how unnecessary being physically located in commercial work spaces is, and sounding the death knell for numerous 100+ year-old brands that had failed to adapt to the blistering pace of change in the digital economy. Failure to contemplate and embrace the future is leaving carnage in its wake.......The onslaught of dramatic change that has accompanied Covid-19 reminds us that fragile systems crack when exposed to unexpected events while antifragile systems have the ability to resist shocks."
Sep 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire."
Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."
Sep 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s footprint in global foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased notably since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. That served to bring Chinese overseas FDI closer to a level that one would expect, based on the country’s weight in the global economy. China accounted for about 12% of global cross-border mergers and acquisitions and 9% of announced greenfield FDI projects between 2013 and 2018. Chinese overseas FDI rose from $10 billion in 2005 (0.5% of Chinese GDP) to nearly $180 billion in 2017 (1.5% of GDP). Likewise, annual construction contracts awarded to Chinese companies increased from $10 billion in 2005 to more than $100 billion in 2017."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Emergence and spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 have created and still creating health issues, economic challenges, political crises and social conflicts around the world. These challenges and conflicts lead the international community to re-evaluate global governance and international structures, which is based on the second world-war and post-cold war. The pandemic will emerge a new era of international society that will not be similar to the pre-Corona world."
Aug 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Russia has changed, and has been changing, since its beginnings in ancient Muscovy to its current condition as Putin’s realm. Some general features appear in much of Russian history. Most of its rulers have been authoritarian—but so, too, were most of England’s, France’s, and Germany’s. Many of its political and intellectual elites have considered Russia a special civilization deserving a place in the sun—but just as many have not, wanting to transform Russia into a Western state with Western values. Many Russians have been enamored of their country, but even more have probably damned it for destroying them and their children. What, then, is Russia? It is, and has always been, many, oftentimes contradictory, things—sometimes coexisting, sometimes getting the upper hand, always shifting, always eluding simplistic analysis. But, and this needs to be emphasized, the same holds true for every other country in the world."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Double dips – defined simply as a decline in quarterly real GDP following a temporary rebound – have occurred in eight of the 11 recessions since the end of World War II. .............Financial markets aren’t the least bit worried about a relapse, owing largely to unprecedented monetary easing, which has evoked the time-honored maxim: “don’t fight the Fed.” Added comfort comes from equally unprecedented fiscal relief aimed at mitigating the pandemic-related shock to businesses and households.......This could be wishful thinking."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "There is no question that the re-election of President Donald Trump would endanger both the US and the world. Moreover, there is ample reason to fear that a close election could drive the US into a deep, prolonged constitutional crisis, and perhaps into civil violence.........One can only hope that the election will produce a decisive winner both in the Electoral College and in the popular vote. Yet, even then, tallying the final result may take time, owing to the massive increase in mail-in voting that is expected. Every ballot that has a postmark of November 2 or 3 (depending on the state) will be considered valid, which means that the final result will not be known until after Election Day. During that window of uncertainty, either or both campaigns may try to claim victory based on the current vote count. In any case, there is no chance that Trump will wait graciously in the Oval Office for days or weeks to receive the final tally. In interviews, he has already issued vague statements suggesting that he will not leave the White House if he loses; indeed, he seems to be actively preparing for such a scenario. If he follows through, the world’s leading superpower will find itself facing a protracted – and perhaps intractable – constitutional crisis.
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "the European Union is a community of values as much as an economic and trade bloc. But the behavior of member states such as Poland and Hungary has called into question their commitment to liberal democracy. Above all, in the US, President Donald Trump is widely criticized, even by lifelong Republicans, for not respecting or understanding the US constitution and the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Does Trump even believe in democracy? Does he want all Americans to vote in November, regardless of race or party affiliation, or only those who will support him? And will he accept the election result if it goes against him? "
Aug 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The fundamental difference in values between the West and China will remain indefinitely, and it is here that the West must draw the line. Any concession that entails a sacrifice of fundamental principles, for example in cultural matters, must be rejected. If this values-based approach results in economic disadvantages, so be it. By the same token, the West should abandon the conceit that it can push, force, or cajole China to become a democracy wrought in its own image. "
Aug 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is light years ahead of most of the rest of the world in deploying digital payment technology. Alipay or WeChat Pay apps are all that is necessary to accomplish almost anything that requires a payment in China; the country is largely already making paper money obsolete. "
Aug 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seven hundred fifty billion euros is less than 5% of the stock of US government debt held by the public. It’s a drop in the bucket, in other words. And a drop does not a liquid market in safe assets make. Even if this really is Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment,” ramping up EU issuance by a factor of 20 will take decades. "
Aug 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "But the race is not over. In the 2016 election, prices moved the most in the two months just before the election. Trump trailed Hillary Clinton in prediction markets throughout the campaign and was seen as favourite only on election day – showing that the underdog can recover. So despite Trump’s poor position now, he might still regain some ground."