Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative

By Christian De Duve | Go to book overview

Chapter 28
The Works of the Mind

HUMAN CULTURE is a product, collectively and cooperatively, of human minds. Rudiments of a culture exist in certain animal behaviors that are transmitted to a greater or lesser extent by imitative learning. Anathema to the behaviorist school, such a possibility is now accepted by many modern ethologists. Bird song, as studied, for example, by the American Peter Marler1 from the Rockefeller University in New York, is only partly instinctive and depends, in part, on imitation. Birds are also involved in an amusing case recorded in England2 in the 1930s, when some tits discovered the trick of pulling the tin-foil caps off milk bottles (traditionally left on doorsteps) and drinking the cream. This habit spread through a large part of the country, most likely by way of imitative learning. Among mammals, most prominently the primates, teaching plays an important role in the transmission, from generation to generation, of such behavioral activities as hunting, shelter building, using objects as tools, socializing, and communication, adding up to a sort of species "lore" that complements straightforward genetic transmission. With hominid evolution, this kind of cultural heredity became progressively more important as the means of communication improved, reaching a dramatic acceleration and expansion with the emergence of language and, especially, writing. Today, any cultural acquisition can immediately be stored for possible worldwide dissemination and retrieval.


CULTURAL EVOLUTION

Cultural evolution is very different from Darwinian evolution. It is much faster and resembles more the kind of evolution postulated at the beginning of the last century by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck ( 1744- 1829). One of the first evolutionists, Lamarck is known for his advocacy of the theory of the heredity of acquired characters. We no longer believe, with Lamarck, that giraffes acquired a long neck as a result of generations of giraffes stretching to reach higher leaves on a tree. Instead, we accept, with Darwin, that giraffes genetically en-

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