Animal Culture and Memes

In past posts we’ve looked at the ability of animals to learn and how crucial that is to their evolutionary survival. In this post, we’re going to take a look at one of the most well-known but intriguing elements of animal learning – the existence of animal culture and the transmission of animal memes.

Many people do not realize that it is well-known that animals do have memes and may even mistakenly think culture is unique to humans. But there are many well-documented cases of animals learning through teaching and thus memes.

Documented Cases of Animal Culture

Nicholas Christakis, in his book Blueprint: The Origins of a Good Society, documented a number of examples of animal culture:

Teaching is actually a kind of cooperative behavior, and it is uncommon in the animal kingdom, since it is costly. Still, it has evolved independently in ants (which teach others the location of food by a kind of tandem running), meerkats (which teach others how to handle dangerous prey), pied babblers (which teach chicks to associate a particular call with food), and other animals, such as primates and elephants. (p. 308)

Christakis gives a personal example of his own dog, which never got up on the table to take the food, seeing another dog do it and then learned it could as well. (p. 308-309)

Crop raiding by elephants is another example. Because humans are so dangerous to elephants, it would not be adaptive for elephants to learn how to crop raid by trial and error. The humans would do them in first. Instead they learn by copying other elephants that know how to avoid getting caught.

Indeed, it seems that the elephants have learned to raid in the middle of the night, especially on moonless nights, and to form bigger-than-usual groups for raiding parties. Elephants also manifest other qualities we associated with efficient learning. They seem to put more credence in the behaviors of peers who are deemed more reliable, such as older more experienced elephants. And they even put more credence in their raiding strategies that they observe to have been adopted by multiple contracts. (p. 321)

Chimp Culture

Studies of Chimpanzees show that Chimp groups each have their own distinctive culture (i.e. set of memes).

At least thirty-nine…behaviors that were studied, ranging from tool use to groom practices were found to be customary in some of the six populations but absent in others. (p. 323)

Of course it’s difficult to be sure if such behavioral differences are truly learned or not. So to verify that this was actually culture, researchers have actually documented the introduction of a new behavior being introduced to a pack of chimps and then documented it spreading through the troupe as others observe it. (p. 327).

In another example, Christakis cites a documented case where Chimpanzees learn from each other how to suck through a straw to drink by watching another chip do it first. The behavior only spread through the chimps among those that paid careful attention to another chip doing it first. (p. 309)

A more humorous example of social learning was a group of macaque monkeys that…

…learned from one another how to run a racket with visiting tourists. They will swoop down and steal hats, glasses, cameras, and so on and return the item only if bribed with food. It’s a highly distinctive, if not unique, [i.e. others of the species don’t do this] and it’s clearly a socially transmitted behavior. Scientists studying the site noted that members of a new group of immigrant macaques began to see that they too, could exchange stolen goods for food. (p. 320)

Animal Fashion

One of the most convincing examples of animal memes came from arbitrary behaviors being learned from one another, essentially cases of Chimps having something like “fashion” that augments one’s looks but has no survival value. One group of Chimps…

…developed a useless practice of putting a long blade of grass into one ear like an earring. This appeared to serve no practical purpose and was thus akin to a fad in humans. Starting from one inventor… it spread to seven other chimpanzees… Notably, this spread was observed in only one of the four groups… which were all isolated from one another.  (p. 328-329)


It’s well documented that some animals transmit learning via teaching, which is a form of cultural transmission. Or in other words, some animals have simple memes. David Deutsch talks about animal memes in his book, The Beginning of Infinity:

If behavior is impossible to imitate without prior knowledge of the theory causing the behaviour, how is it that apes, famously, can ape? They have memes….

(BoI, p. 405. Emphasis mine.)

We’ve seen that even some lower animals, such as ants, have memes as well as some higher animals, like primates and elephants. In the case of higher animals, we’ve seen that sometimes those memes include arbitrary fashions as well as complex survival skills like the collection of behaviors required to do a raid against a human village.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *