Scientist concludes animals, not just humans, have culture

May 27, 2011

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(Flickr/The Letter E)
Lonsdorf studies chimps like these at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Do animals have culture? If you’re talking about chimps and you’re asking Dr. Elizabeth Lonsdorf of Lincoln Park Zoo, she’ll tell you yes. It’s an unorthodox and somewhat controversial opinion in her field of primatology but it’s a professional opinion she’s developed after years of studying chimps in her lab and in the wild.

When Lonsdorf spoke recently at Northwestern University she talked about observations she and her colleagues have made about tool use among chimps. Before Jane Goodall, the godmother of chimp research, observed her charges using long strands of grass to extract tasty insects from a large anthill, it was thought that only humans made tools.

Lonsdorf’s group has taken Goodall’s research a step further by identifying differences in tool use among various chimp populations, differences that can’t easily be explained by geography, or access to resources - differences she’s inclined to label as cultural.

They may not be discussing Satre or writing poetry, but you may be surprised at what these little guys are up to. You can hear Lonsdorf’s descriptions of some startling (and ballsy) chimp behavior, and her argument for why that constitutes culture, in the audio excerpt above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Dr. Elizabeth Lonsdorf spoke to an audience assembled by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology in April. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.