October 20, 2011

Cultured orangutans

The is a long-standing debate about the origins of human uniqueness. Specific human adaptations (such as the use of sophisticated tools, fire, clothing, ornaments, etc.) seem to have occurred at different times. What seems to be most human, however, is language and culture. Our species, it turns out, is not the only one to have culture, i.e., transmission of know-how via non-genetic means, but we are certainly awfully good at it, aided by our ability to communicate with language.

One camp thinks that there was one or more genetic mutations that turned us from apes to humans. According to that point of view, we are genetically special, and our complex language and culture was made possible by our genetic endowment.

An alternative view is that humans are not that special genetically, or that their adaptations took hold long before the emergence of fully modern behavior during the Upper Paleolithic. According to that view, one can think of humans as kindling that took the spark of culture by accident, long after it was ready to receive it. As an analogy, we can say that Upper Paleolithic brains probably had the capacity to go to the Moon, but did not have the culture for it yet: settled agriculture, science, and the industrial revolution were needed first.

I tend to the latter view myself. If a Neandertal or even Homo heidelbergensis child were raised in a modern society, they would no doubt be able to function in it, even if they weren't very bright or if they talked/moved/looked funny. The fact that these species never developed the complex cultures that modern humans did is not in itself evidence that they were innately incapable to produce them.

In any case, the comparison of the modern human/Neandertal genomes, in conjunction with developmental studies/studies of pathological variants may yet shed more light on whether modern humans do have, after all, genetic mutations that acted as the great enablers of their cultural efflorescence.

The new study frames the debate by establishing that one part of "being human", cultural transmission across the generations isn't "only human".

Culture in Humans and Apes Has the Same Evolutionary Roots
ScienceDaily (Oct. 20, 2011) — Culture is not a trait that is unique to humans. By studying orangutan populations, a team of researchers headed by anthropologist Michael Krützen from the University of Zurich has demonstrated that great apes also have the ability to learn socially and pass them down through a great many generations. The researchers provide the first evidence that culture in humans and great apes has the same evolutionary roots, thus answering the contentious question as to whether variation in behavioral patterns in orangutans are culturally driven, or caused by genetic factors and environmental influences.
Current Biology, 10.1016/j.cub.2011.09.017

Culture and Geographic Variation in Orangutan Behavior

Michael Krützen et al.

Although geographic variation in an organism's traits is often seen as a consequence of selection on locally adaptive genotypes accompanied by canalized development [1], developmental plasticity may also play a role [2,3], especially in behavior [4]. Behavioral plasticity includes both individual learning and social learning of local innovations (“culture”). Cultural plasticity is the undisputed and dominant explanation for geographic variation in human behavior. It has recently also been suggested to hold for various primates and birds [5], but this proposition has been met with widespread skepticism [6,7,8]. Here, we analyze parallel long-term studies documenting extensive geographic variation in behavioral ecology, social organization, and putative culture of orangutans [9] (genus Pongo). We show that genetic differences among orangutan populations explain only very little of the geographic variation in behavior, whereas environmental differences explain much more, highlighting the importance of developmental plasticity. Moreover, variation in putative cultural variants is explained by neither genetic nor environmental differences, corroborating the cultural interpretation. Thus, individual and cultural plasticity provide a plausible pathway toward local adaptation in long-lived organisms such as great apes and formed the evolutionary foundation upon which human culture was built.

Link

7 comments:

Pascvaks said...

Agree with your inclination as well.

(Can't resist... perhaps the Garden of Edan was a lot farther back in time --say 4 million years ago-- than we ever thought? The "awareness of good and evil" --whatever that means-- might be the dividing line, if so, thank Eve for everything.)

Onur said...

perhaps the Garden of Edan was a lot farther back in time --say 4 million years ago-- than we ever thought? The "awareness of good and evil" --whatever that means-- might be the dividing line, if so, thank Eve for everything

The human non-speciality further disproves the Adam and Eve and Garden of Eden myth and consequently the existence of the god of the Abrahamic religions and the reliability of the "holy" books of those religions.

Fanty said...

Well theist definition of a human is: If it prays to a god, its a human.

If it does not pray to a good, its just a great ape.

Onur said...

Well theist definition of a human is: If it prays to a god, its a human.

If it does not pray to a good, its just a great ape.


My post was not about theist religions as a whole but about the Abrahamic* religions.

* Abraham himself is a myth.

Pascvaks said...

"My post was not about theist religions as a whole but about the Abrahamic* religions."

The "religion phenom" cannot be easily separated into this or that, they all seek to answer the unanswerable; the how and who and what and where (and when) of it is so much, much less than the why of it. It's more a pudding than a stew, and it's really difficult to separate one from the other. Sorry I hit a nerve. Just using a well known simile of “the beginning of man” to make a point about common, old ideas being adjusted with new findings, as they have always been. Let’s not turn this into a discussion about the unknowable and who has the best, right answer.

apostateimpressions said...

Just using a well known simile of “the beginning of man” to make a point about common, old ideas being adjusted with new findings, as they have always been.

Personally I prefer the cool pagan stories to misanthropic Judaeo-Christian stories about "fallen" humanity. Obviously I dont "believe" in any of them.

"Belief" is properly based on *reason* not on "faith". Otherwise we say that we "do not know".

Dienekes said...

You are all off-topic.