C is for culture (warning: grossly simplified content)


There are tons of C’s I could have gone with: consciousness, continuity, Colonel Sanders, creativity (in animals), Crufts. This is the beginners’ section, so we begin with the obvious.

Culture is a huge deal in anthrozoology. Your first question is: is there a sharp divide between nature and culture? Some guys looked into “primitive” societies and said yes, culture begins when persons have a model in their mind of how things should be, and they act accordingly. A big example is the incest rule. Should you, as a human, choose to avoid incest, you’re cultured. You’ve transcended nature. The structuralist thinkers like CLS take this further. Because everyone in the family, or tribe, is following this rule, there’s a predictable symmetry to where everyone sleeps, which trickles into how they prepare food, tell stories, what they believe, and how they relate to animals.

Of course, in the real world people don’t always follow the structure. And these days argue that culture is a pointless ideal that doesn’t work off paper and can’t be separated from nature. What we have is the nature inside, our brains, genes and experiences, which make all of us perceive things differently. How we trade these beliefs and habits changes all the time.

What about animals? Can they have culture? To fit into a cultural norm, you have to have self awareness, an awareness of what others are doing, and an awareness of what will happen if you do or don’t conform. There’s plenty of evidence for intentionality and planning in apes for example, but what about other animals? How about the cultures we form with our pets, for example? Cats and dogs in a household may be good pals, suggesting they have overcome some sort of “natural” animosity.

Taking lessons from cultural theorists at present – who argue that the minds of individuals are way too ephemeral to be lumped into cultures – should we be bothering to look for culture in animals?

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