Do you think animals have evolving cultures? Do they transmit cultural information from generation to generation?
MARC: The only animals I’ve been intimately familiar with are dogs and cats, and as far as I can tell they haven’t changed much since I was a kid. Maybe they have a tough time transmitting cultural information because their families get broken up. Like when dogs have puppies they get given away usually. But I guess they must evolve, because that’s how they became domesticated in the first place.
SUSAN: I read recently that dogs may have domesticated themselves because they liked being with us.
MARC: They’ve got weird taste in creatures.
SUSAN: I think some animals must have evolving cultures. I was watching a show on TV that showed apes getting at some kind of nut or something by smashing it with a rock. So that’s a learned behavior, I think.
SUSAN: I once had two cats. The first cat was deathly afraid of the vacuum cleaner. She would freak out and run into the other room whenever I turned it on. The second cat was not afraid of it in the least. But the first cat taught the second one that it was something to fear.
MARC: What did that look like?
SUSAN: Bibu, the first cat, would give a start when the vacuum cleaner was switched on, and eventually Emma, the other cat, would too, and then they would both turn tail and run.
MARC: That sounds like a devolving culture rather than an evolving mini-culture of cats.
SUSAN: Well, yeah. If you want to look at it strictly from our point of view… but from theirs, maybe a cat COULD get sucked up by a vacuum cleaner.
MARC: Or maybe it’s bad for the cats’ ears.
SUSAN: Yeah. Or maybe the vacuum really WAS after them.
MARC: So then maybe the cats understood in some way that the vacuum cleaner has a mechanical intelligence of its own that is … um ….
SUSAN: … hostile to cats.
MARC: Right. I mean, they perceive things that we don’t. And the first cat taught the second cat to fear, for a very rational reason.
SUSAN: I don’t know if it was rational or not. All I know is that the second cat absorbed the behavior of the first one.
MARC: Okay. I could see thinking that a vacuum cleaner is evil. It is a little bit imperious.
SUSAN: And intrusive. Especially when you’re all comfy in your spot.
MARC: Honestly though, I think the noise just scares them. And I think cats are generally skittish. It’s a quality of cats, so they’re easily suggestible to each other’s fear. I don’t consider that cultural transmission. I just consider that copycatting.