Warning-this article contains material that may be intellectually disturbing

Early on, researchers in odd corners of animal behaviour noticed some funny things. Birds learn their amazing songs from other birds, albeit of the same species. Groups of animals seeme to have small but steady differences in the way they did the same things-for example, the way different sets of chimps used their primitive tools. And so it went. Now a major study reported by Ryan Morrison for the Daily Mail * reports that the idea of animal learning, and animal cultures is extremely widespread, and is certainly not confined to our rather clever nearer relatives. It’s been around for a very long time according the study author Professor Andrew Whiten of St Andrews University.

Why is all this important? Well, because it upsets a lot of apple carts. For a start, there was the confident assunption that only humans had culture, and animals were robots, blindly carrying out the relentless programmes of their genes. That’s desperately over-simple. Secondly, that the genetic material (DNA in all higher organisms) was the sole and only mediator of evolution, and its selection by the vagaries of Fortune was the only determinant of who and what we were. (An idea once very popular with fans of The Selfish Gene, but we’ll go into that another day) Yet, if learned ways of behaving are passed down and selected in the harsh school of nature,are we not talking about a second evolutionary system? One that might be called “culture?”

No one can deny the central importance of natural selection on genomes. Ask any expert on antibiotic resistance if you doubt that. For some time now we have suspected that epigenetics, the life of proteins and RNA associated with genes may be playing a role too. Now comes strong evidence of a third, cultural factor. It makes life much more complicated and interesting, both for living organisms, but above all for the scientists who study them. Time for a strong drink, everyone?


#dna #naturalselection #culturalevolution #epigenetics

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