Animal cultures and overimitating

August 23, 2010 | By | Reply More

In the July 16, 2010 edition of Science (available online only to subscribers), Michael Balter opens his article, “Probing Cultures Secrets,” with words that would have been considered blasphemous by scientists only a few decades ago:

Scientists once designated “culture” as the exclusive province of humans. But that elitist attitude is long gone, as evidenced by the recent meeting here on how culture, usually defined as the passing on of traditions by learning from others, arises and changes. The 700 attendees [of “culture evolves,” held in London], a mixture of researchers and members of the public, heard talks on cultural transmission in fish, meerkats, birds, and monkeys, as well as in extinct and living humans.

Balter’s question is “why do certain cultural trends, such as fashions, begin and catch on?

To illustrate his answer, Balter refers to the work of anthropologist Susan Perry who described some unusual behavior of white faced capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica. Balter writes that some of these monkeys have adopted various traditions with “no clear survival purpose, such as sniffing each other’s fingers and inserting them into a companions nose, or biting off a big chunk of another monkeys for and holding it in the mouth while he or she playfully tries to get it back.” Balter then describes what Perry termed a “bizarre and high-risk ritual” wherein a capuchin monkey will Image by BFPhoto at (with permission)

insert his or her long, sharp, dirty fingernail deep into the eye socket of another animal, between the eyelid and the eyeball up to the first knuckle. In videos Perry played for the meeting, the monkeys on the receiving end of the fingernail, typically social allies, could be seen to grimace and bat their eyelids furiously (as did many members of the audience) but did not attempt to remove the finger or otherwise object to the treatment. Indeed, during these eye-poking sessions, which last up to an hour, monkeys insisted on the finger being reinserted if it popped out of the eye socket.

Balter asks: “why would the monkeys do something potentially dangerous?” He then suggests that this might be one of many types of behaviors used to “solidify alliances.” Another example: “some male baboons will hold each other’s testicles before teaming up to fight high-ranking individuals, apparently to establish trust before going into battle.”

Humans excel at adapting sophisticated cultural routines, more than any other animal. Another scientist at the meeting, Derek Lyons, suggested that the mechanism is “overimitation.” This can be seen in human children who have “the tendency to copy the actions of an adult even when they are unnecessary for achieving a goal. When human children are told to achieve the goal that incorporates obviously irrelevant steps, they continue to over imitate (using the unnecessary steps). This is still true even when the children are told to avoid the “silly” extra steps. The only effective way to avoid this kind of over imitation is to tell the children that the useless actions were unintentional.

Lyons argues that “children overimitate to please adults,” and he calls this tendency “automatic causal encoding.” This tendency could have adaptive value, because children assume that adults around them know what they are doing–“such a strategy is “a logical approach when confronted with a complicated, unfamiliar artifact.”

Balter ends with a quote by Uta Frith, a neuroscientist at University College London:  “I am persuaded that this is the secret of the evolution of human culture.”

[Addendum August 23, 2010]

Based on the above article in Science, I suspect that “overimitating” is behind the reason children (even adult children) so readily accept the religion of their parents as their “morality.”  Apparently, self-critical switches get turned off among families, and we tend to accomplish the important things they do (e.g., morality) exactly HOW they do them (i.e., by imitating an entire set of religious practices, not simply by displaying kindness in a general way).  We imitate all of the bells and whistles, not just the general function.  Most people don’t shop for a religion.  Even those who do shop don’t tend to stray outside of the general type of religion in which they were raised. Christians who leave their churches tend to switch to other types of Christianity, but they don’t tend to become Buddhists or Hindus.  This ubiquitous willingness to imitate one’s parent’s religion down to the specific rituals came to mind as I read Uta Frith’s quote, above.   The “choice” of religion seems too automatic to be a real choice.   The “choice” of religion thus seems to be determined by Jonathan Haidt’s elephant, rather than the rider, and the elephant might merely be (over)imitating.


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Category: Cultural Evolution, Human animals, Science

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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