Wednesday, November 24
by Laurence Shafe on Wed 24 Nov 2010 11:54 AM GMT
I have always been intrigued by the question to what extent is our thinking constrained and constructed by the society we live in. Our culture appears to determine the basis of our thinking. What is regarded as common sense in one culture is nonsense in another. But how can we escape from our own culture to see our own thought patterns? One way perhaps is to step back and look not at different human cultures but what we mean but culture itself. Along with Darwin I believe that if we find some attribute in humans then we will also find in in other animals.
New Scientist (20 November 2010, p. 38-41) describes a recent meeting held by the Royal Society where the question of culture in animals was discussed. Researchers found 42 categories of behaviour in chimpanzees that varied between populations and they concluded they were passed on from one animal to another by social learning. Such learned behaviour has been found in whales, orang-utans, monkeys, birds and fish.
So if so many animals do it why is our culture so much more diverse? What is it we have evolved that other animals don’t have? An important finding is that it is not just copying one’s parents but we are particularly good at selecting who to copy. Even 5 year old children will select reliable sources to copy. But unfortunately for our pride it seems even fish discriminate in the same way. One key is that 2.6 million years ago we started using tools and passing on the skills to use tools was much more difficult and what evolved was the ability to teach and learn. Perhaps what makes us different is our ability to teach and perhaps teaching is the oldest profession.
It seems there is another human ability, we over-imitate. That is, unlike other animals, young children will copy every single step even if it is clearly irrelevant. A useful adaptation when tools are increasingly complex as a single step might be vital and irrelevant steps can always be dropped later. A feedback loop developed in which we evolved more complex tools alongside better methods of teaching and learning to use them. The selfish gene model would suggest that teaching and learning took place predominantly within close kin groups and that better tools increased the chance of survival.
However, tools seemed to improve only slowly over time and in leaps and bounds. It has been found children are very conservative, they preferentially imitate people who conform to social norms so it is difficult for quirky innovations to get started. It seems change was brought about by external forces such as climate change and population growth.
So we have evolved to follow tradition and erect barriers to change. But aren’t the internet and globalisation changing that? Possibly but even on the internet we interact within small groups of like-minded people.