15 March 2019

Discover: Chimpanzees, Humans, Animal Culture

CognEYEzant day 262, Ed Yong
The genetic connections between humans and chimpanzees, whether they be our approximately 99% shared DNA or through our culture, remind me that some of the most human traits we possess are also some of our most animalistic.

At first, humans set ourselves apart from other animals by claiming we were the only creatures to use tools: chimps, among others, share this behavior. Us humans have led ourselves to believe that our culture sets us apart from the animal kingdom. But as Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes, writes in his The Atlantic article Chimpanzees Are Going Through a Tragic Loss, “many scientists have come to accept the existence of animal cultures”.

In a chimpanzee community —a group of adult males, females, and the young— chimps observe each other and by doing so, learn new skills and behaviors. Each chimp contributes unique skills, dare I say perspectives, to their community, the elders serving as history museums. Spanning across equatorial Africa, chimpanzee behavior varies by differing skills and practices, not just by ecological variances. In other words, chimpanzees problem solve, they adapt and have practices, they remember and learn— chimpanzees have culture.
CognEYEzant day 262

Our human perspectives all too often are unaware of, or disregard, the culture and nuances of others, whether they be humans or other animals. From my experience, especially with art, I’ve learned to crave the documentation and conservation of the thoughts and creations our culture produces. Yet as Yong puts it,

“We care about the loss of our own cultures. We work to document languages that are going extinct. We store old art in museums. […] It seems shortsighted—unimaginative, even—to be so concerned with our own traditions, but so blasé about those of our closest cousins, especially when we’ve only just started to appreciate how rich their cultural landscape can be.”


Take five minutes: broaden your perspective on animal culture by reading Ed Young’s article.

Take five weeks: learn about the nuances of chimpanzee behavior, and how we can conserve them as a species and a culture, by taking Duke University’s free MOOC (massive online open course) Chimpanzee Behavior and Conservation on Coursera. Join me, I’m currently taking it. 

This article originally appeared as Day 262 on BFWP's Sister Project CognEYEzant*. CognEYEzant is a 365-day art project Nadia aka The Thinker thought up. Every day for a year she creates a piece of art that represents an eye, much of the art is accompanied by articles like this one. Check out the project here. You can follow CognEYEzant by subscribing by email on the website and/or following CognEYEzant's Instagram @cogneyezant