Culture Japanese Macaques - Jigokudani hotspring, Japan ©Yosemite, 2005

By Kevin N. Laland
Professor of Biology, University of St Andrews

What is culture?

The term ‘culture’ typically evokes images of fine dining, fashion and the arts. However, boiled down to its essence, culture is learned knowledge, expressed in behaviour and artefacts, that people acquire from other individuals through teaching or copying. This knowledge often leads to local traditions, say, for speaking French, or eating pasta.

Do other animals have culture?

Culture, for so long viewed as an attribute that separated humanity from the rest of nature, must itself have evolved from simpler forms. Such precursors are observable in other animals. For instance, chimpanzees have local foraging traditions, such as cracking nuts or fishing for ants, which vary across Africa. The song dialects of birds and whales similarly vary, and change over time. Even fish have learned traditions for taking pathways or using particular sites to feed or rest, which they learn from older individuals.

How has culture changed human evolution?

Cultures help to shape biological evolution. For instance, the advent of agriculture, and domestication of plants and animals, led to major changes in human diet - triggering selection for genes that allow digestion of new foods. Our stone-age ancestors would probably have gagged on a diet of beer, chips, bread or milk.

How do cultures evolve?

Cultural knowledge changes over time through a process that in some respects resembles biological evolution. Our language, fashion and technology all change as old phrases, clothes, and innovations are replaced by newer, often better, forms. This occurs because some ideas propagate and are copied more effectively than others. People adopt new cultural knowledge through the use of rules, such as ‘copy the most successful individual’, or ‘conform to the majority behaviour’


For more information visit Kevin Laland’s website or the culture evolves website.