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Tool Use, Culture and Human Hubris

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  • Julienne
    Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology Tool Use, Culture and Human Hubris Posted:
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 4, 2013
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      Jeff Schweitzer

      Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in
      marine biology/neurophysiology

      Tool Use, Culture and Human Hubris
      Posted: 02/04/2013 5:24 pm

      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

      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.


      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.

      This Blogger's Books from Amazon

      Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World
      by Jeff Schweitzer, Giuseppe Notarbartolo-Di-Sciara


      Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which
      differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people
      are even incapable of forming such opinions.
      -- Albert Einstein
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