The Evolution of Culture in Animals

By John T. Bonner

Princeton University Press




Culture can be defined as the transfer of information by behavioral means, most particularly by the process of teaching and learning.[i]  The stress of this definition is on the mode of transmission, not the result.    He contrasts “cultural evolution” and “genetical evolution”. 

Some say all behaviors are due to the selfish genes.  Many social scientists say that culture has no direct genetic determination.  But look to the diversity of cultures.  Look to their underlying similarities.  Cultures alter the phenotype.  We are getting taller.  We cannot genetically develop fur right away.  Rats that are exposed to more have more dendrites.  But we can wear it.  There is a cultural and genetic symbiosis. They depend upon each other. 

Both Ands and humans have slavery.  They forcibly capture members of their own species or related species and cause their captives to do work for the benefit of the captors.  We shouldn’t be tyrannized by words.  If a biologist cannot use such words as slaves or castes, he shall have to create a new bizarre vocabulary.[ii]


Genes cannot account for all because different organisms will produce different neighbors.  If the world outside genes did not matter, all organisms would still be single celled.  Larger organisms change more slowly as they have longer life cycles.  Their genetic changes cannot be fast enough to help them adapt.  Cultural / behavioral adaptability compensates for this genetic rigidity.[iii]  These are very different modes of adaptation.  But they are both real modes in nature.  Genetic change is slow in larger animals.  Behavioral change is faster. 


Female cowbirds raised in isolation respond to the male song by immediately adopting a “copulatory posture”.  They do this more so to the songs of males raised in isolation.[iv]  Wasps can walk, fly, eat, find a mate, mate, find prey and perform a host of other complex behaviors without any learning from other individuals. 

Thus in nature there must have been pressure for fast information processing.  Thus there would be pressure for the centralization of neurons.  The centralization of neurons is a harbinger of culture. 

The older a vertebrate species is the larger its brain is as a percentage of its total body weight.[v]  Fish have the smallest ones.  Mammals have the largest ones.  So there is a trend towards flexibility and the ability to learn.  Furthermore, the longer the juvenile period in the primate, the larger the brain to body weight ratio.[vi]  Our brain grows longer and our body shorter amounts of time. 


The flagella of bacteria spin together either clockwise or counter clockwise.  They move towards attractive chemicals via memory.  They compare concentrations at one time with another to see if they are getting closer to or further from attractive solutions.[vii]

Social bacteria have no culture but they do have a division of labor.  Large social groups may not have a brain.  Culture requires brains.  The spores are the reproductive caste.  The stalk cells are the workers.[viii]


Social insects often are born of the same genetic material which differentiates due to environmental signals.  Smaller colonies have less castes.  These will use aggression to determine who is who.  Larger ones differentiate physiologically, but use chemicals to become their caste roles.  The largest have the greatest division of labor and it is all chemical and environmental.  Two systems evolved to the same end.[ix]  Chemicals may be a faster source of adaptation to environ than culture due to it resulting in different phenotypes.

Mammals use chemical signals too.  Chemicals are involved in seeking a mate, courtship, parent and offspring, nest building, brooding and feeding. 

Hamadryas baboons have a hierarchy that is kin related.  Men charge at their women to keep them in line.  Bands are there for mating and family activity.  Troops form at night for protection.  South and Central howler monkeys are more democratic.  The males are much larger but they have enough food.  Each band has its territory guarded by howling.  There is a feint dominance hierarchy.  It is tempting to say this is due to the relative safety and abundance of foods for the howler.

Hierarchy can give stability and divides labor.  In times of war a democracy can be a drawback.  That is why with each war we have more and more power going to the president. 

Sometimes Hamilton’s kin selection makes for group formation.  Sometimes it is communal task selection.  Some animals hunt better alone (jaguars) some better in packs (wolves).  In jaguars, kin selection cannot out weigh the benefits of doing it alone.  Some are alone except during mating.  Getting food and protection drive groups together.  Finally, some modify the environment better collectively.  Beavers and ants for example. 

Overall, invertebrates communicate with chemical signals and vertebrates with auditory and visual signals (which permit an infinitely greater repertoire. 

Ants lick each other a lot and honey bees do dances.  And many vertebrates use chemical signals (urine and pheromones for example).  But vertebrates use more behaviors.  Pets will tell you it is walk time in a myriad of ways.  We think auditory is dominant.  And it is big (bird songs, danger, attraction and food discovery).  Signal reception is something that has also grown to be able to detect subtle differences.  Surrounding conditions also feed information from the signal. 


Learning came before teaching in evolution.  In mazes, rats are only slightly better learners than ants.  Some birds do not entirely inherit their song.  Deaf birds do less well than hearing birds raised in isolation.  This flexibility of polish allows for dialect and individual flourishes for identity and territory purposes.[x]  Duetting birds are characteristically found in thick forests, and the duet allows them to keep in touch. Some birds learn star coordinates during nesting.  And then whether it flies north or south depends on hormones.  Imprinting is another function of timed learning.

Adults can also learn.  Animals learn to avoid certain foods in one lesson.  Extended learning is necessary because the lessons are crucial for survival.  Play fighting for example. 

Insects and vertebrates alike have a special region of the brain, separate from the storage area itself that is involved in the consolidation of learned information.  Perhaps the most primitive kind of teaching is self-teaching.  It is what is called trial and error.  No information is transferred from one individual to another. This is monkeys learning leaping from tree to tree through long practice undertaken by themselves.  This is KIDS PLAYING SPORTS UNSUPERVISED.

All mammals do quite a lot of self-teaching.  There is no teaching of one individual to another in this though.  Therefore, no cultural information may pass. 

Imitation is the next level.  The simplest form of imitation is when one individual imitates an elder.  The animal needn’t change its routine to teach.  This kind of teaching is probably the most commonly found in the animal kingdom.  Birds copy songs. 

Imitation reaches its height in higher vertebrates.  Song birds imitate each other as do primates under their long tutelage.  Even in humans, small children imitate adults.  And the young are reprimanded for bad imitation.  Vertebrates will nudge and poke those that imitate poorly.[xi]  Guiding imitation takes little communication. But it greatly hones trial and error self-teaching.   If an infant chimp climbs too high up a tree, the mother taps the trunk softly and the child climbs down.[xii]

This leaves the most important type of teaching.  When one individual actively teaches another.  Honey bees returning from foraging teach the hive what they have learned. We think they are an insect exception but it may be that we haven’t cracked the language codes of others.  But bees have a limited amount of instructions they can share.

Insects cannot imitate.  It is only possible to give instructions when both the instructor and the pupil can give and receive.  Bees cannot communicate the unexpected.    Vertebrates have a remarkable power of imitation.  And they are motivated to do so. Imitation being so important in vertebrates CENSORSHIP IS NECESSARY.

Ants will learn behaviors a day late if raised in isolation.  So learning is minimal.  The biggest advance is lower vertebrates and all higher ones in their period of parental care.  The young are constantly at the side of a parent and the parent is constantly doing things that are important for survival.  So the youth just watches. 

The sooner the young can learn the survival skills the better.  So there is selection pressure to imitate.  The flexibility means they can survive in different environs.  Protection and food information is the first taught in species.  After this the learning is limited by the ability to communicate symbolically.  Verbal, tactile and chemical clues teach a lot. 

There is a spectrum from innate to learned behavior.  Early is the fixed response.  A more advanced condition occurs when the organism can respond in more than one way, but again each alternative is rigid.  Moving away or toward something.  The third level involves slight flexibility in the response by being continuous over a range of stimulus.  The fourth is when it must be learned from scratch.  That is early on imitation.  Ten teaching evolves. 


Genetic mutation is a step forward in flexibility.  Asexual mutations to sexual selection.  That is why sex is ubiquitous.  It gives us flexibility ala Darwin’s finches.  Birds and fish have an ideal food in mind and variations are okay, but not preferred.  There are genetic morphs in the phenotype.  Butterflies that are brown but change to green in green environs.  This is not behavior flexibility.  All behavior, no matter how flexible, has a genetic basis.  We know genes as a result of their action.  When an animal has two choices, those choices are made in the brain.  Reflexes are one “choice” possibilities, decisions are more, but also brain based.   In multiple choice, learning is possible.  When a mouse population is high the strategy that is best is moving to a less favorable but uncrowded location.  It is good to have this under behavioral control so it can be learned and reversed if the conditions change. 

Mammals, including man, can automatically select a balanced diet.  Rats know what deficiency their body must make up.  Rats try new foods in modest amounts, that is why they are hard to poison.  Once learned to make you sick they don’t touch it.  Single choice closed program behaviors often happen within the species, such as courtship.  Multiple happen with the environment.  Within types of stickleback, the courtship ritual is different.  If there is a slight difference in ritual it is terminated midway.  The difference in courtship behavior maintains species isolation. 

There is a pressure towards flexibility towards the environment as this allows you to invade other habitats. 

There are no known cases where the male exclusively cares for the offspring except in fish.  This though male pigeons and other birds can lactate.  For any species there could easily be more than one evolutionary stable strategy of child rearing.  Milk in mammals is a female thing.  In the arctic, the sever time restrictions means both parents have to pitch in in rearing.  The radical changes in child rearing we are now seeing in humans may be as evolutionarily stable as earlier methods.


The grand sweep of organic evolution shows a series of branch points.  There are branch points leading to culture.  The first one is the separation between the fast and the slow response.  Bacteria motility is a fast reaction.  Storing and processing information was invented in the form of a nervous system.  Then there comes the point when the brain surpasses the genome as an information processing machine.  This didn’t mean the disappearance of animals with small brains. 

The brain, with its system of managing communication between individuals of the same species, has made integration into social groups possible, and social animals, more than solitary ones, foster culture. 

The second and third products of the brain are the ability to learn and to teach. 

The fourth is flexible responses that involve choices.  The ultimate in flexibility occurs when the brain has more than given, alternative, choices; by invention it produces new ones that did not exist before.  This is key in human history though not absent in lesser animals. 


Information transfer happens when the sperm and egg meet.  But this isn’t culture as culture involves the transmission of behavioral information.  What is the simples brain mediated culture?  Odor trails give single response to single stimulus.  The information is also volatile and soon disappears.  No accumulation is possible. 

Wasps leave clues for their offspring in terms of which way is out of the nest.  But it is again single action responses. 

Many birds and mammals do imitation.  Dogs raised by cats lick their paws.  Mouse catching in cats is passed on by imitation.  The use of tools by many animals is learned via imitation.  Finches hold thorns to remove grub from trees.  Chimps do termiting.[xiii]

Docile skomer island voles can be raised to be aggressive.  But aggressive strain cannot be raised to be docile.  The mainland ones are more aggressive.  So the passive strain are more ancient.  When they moved to the mainland they had to deal with predators. 

African elephants were peaceful until they were slaughtered.  Now they are nocturnal and aggressive to any human presence.  That even though they are no longer hunted.  So the fear was culturally transmitted. 

European blackbirds can be taught to mob non-traditional enemies, via observation of others doing it.  It is advantageous for an animal to learn rather than inherit information concerning the nature of a predator.[xiv]

Most birds learn their song in their youth.  Male outbreeding species can learn new dialects as the switch populations later in life. 

Young butterflies always take their journey in the presence of older individuals.  Blue tits learned to open cream bottles and the skill quickly spread over the entire British isles. 

Man has increased the art of teaching.  Certain kinds of information can only be transmitted by behavioral means.  Among birds, in some mammals and possibly insects returning to particular places is taught.  It is virtually impossible to inherit information about geography one has never seen.  Another example of pressure to behavioral, nongenic learning is in the need to recognize individuals.  Insects basically recognize nest mates and non nest mates.  Birds learn to recognize each other as mates.  They learn each other’s songs. 

In mammals there are more recognition systems.  We now have language communication that allows transfer of lots of information between individuals.  Cooperative and competitive traits are selected for.  Success in this allows cooperative pair formation, protection of related individuals and non-cooperative, selfish acts

Increasing ability to communicate is selected for.  This bypassed genetic pressures, but for bigger brains that could transmit a wide variety of rapid, flexible innovative signals in a behavioral rather than a genetic fashion.  This step is the cornerstone of the evolution of culture.[xv]  At this point it was possible to pass on, accumulate, and even invent new information without any direct instructions from the genes.  There is an evolution of cultures then.  And these cultures cannot adversely affect reproduction and survive. 

Culture and customs can be considered alternative steady states.  If a disaster is tried, it is avoided and the positive behaviors are retained in a shifting steady state. 



[i] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 9.

[ii] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 10.

[iii] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 15.

[iv] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 34.

[v] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 42.

[vi] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 48.

[vii] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 63.

[viii] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 73.

[ix] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 84.

[x] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 115.

[xi] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 121.

[xii] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 122.

[xiii] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 166.

[xiv] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 171.

[xv] Bonner, John.  The Evolution of Culture in Animals.  Princeton University Press.  New Jersey.  1980. p 186.