Do non-human animals have culture and morality?

Dolphins (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Obviously if you’ve read some of earlier posts you’ll now I think some of them do. Not all animals of course but some of them. I tried to convince you with my post on animal intelligence, specifically focussed on intelligence in animals other than primates, but I’ve since heard some more stories which I think are useful for expanding on some of the points I made there. This time I will be using some primate examples, since hopefully you’re convinced there is intelligence in other animals, as well as expanding on dolphins.

Previously I brought up sponging behaviour as a possible example of culture in non-human animals. More recent research lends support to dolphins having culture. Firstly a study conducted on the dolphins of Shark Bay (the full text is freely available) have showed that spongers preferentially associate with other spongers and non-spongers preferentially associate with other spongers. Previous studies of culture in animals have been where the entire group shows a behaviour so the animals share the behaviour because they are in the group rather than being in the group because of the behaviour. I guess that would be similar to nationality. People share a nationality because they are part of that group, they don’t come from all over the globe and band together because of their nationality. This new study is more like looking at sports teams in a school. The cricket players will generally be close friends and hang out more with each other than with the chess club even though they are all part of the same school.

The authors do point out that there are other factors that affect how the dolphins associate and their foraging technique is not the sole determinant. However a second study on dolphins, still in press, shows a similar division as well as the reintegration of a split dolphin society. In Moreton Bay, Australia, a population of dolphins lived in the same area but rarely interacted with the two groups, like in Shark Bay, possessing different feeding techniques. One group hunted for food as normal but the other group fed on the by-catch of fishing trawlers. When the fishing trawlers were banned from the area that source of food, and so the reason for the cultural divide, disappeared. The two groups have now begun interacting again and working together to find food. I think together these papers show good support for dolphins having culture.

Now we’re going to move from culture to morality. It generally seems to be thought humans are the only moral animals. I haven’t seen a huge amount on morality in animals but it did come up on a recent post on Why Evolution Is True and I think is worth thinking about. The WEIT post has more information but, in short, the following shows the reaction of a capuchin monkey which seems to be due to the unfairness of seeing his neighbour getting a grape for doing the same task for which he received a piece of cucumber. The monkeys apparently prefer grapes to cucumber (so do I).

According to Frans de Waal, a primatologist whose talk the video appeared in:

[This reaction to unfairness] has never been demonstrated in rodents, only in dogs, corvids, and primates thus far. The reaction is clearly related to what the other one is getting, not the availability of grapes, as we showed in another study.

And lastly a demonstration of intelligence in primates that I thought was quite cool. In Rwanda gorillas can be injured or killed by poachers’ snares set for other animals. Trackers from the local research centre usually go out looking for the snares and disable them. Recently though they saw something different happen, two juvenile gorillas disabling the traps themselves. Firstly it’s great that they’re able to protect themselves now but it also seems that they learned this themselves from watching the trackers. So they recognise the snares as dangerous, have seen humans disabling them and are now disabling them to protect the troop. It’s not tool use in the conventional sense but learning to use someone else’s tools is still a very impressive feat, especially when some people view other animals as stupid.

2 thoughts on “Do non-human animals have culture and morality?

  1. Pingback: E&R’s first birthday! | Evidence & Reason

  2. Pingback: Hawaiian dolphin rescue | Evidence & Reason

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