Ever since Richard Dawkins coined the term, 'meme' in The Selfish Gene we have known that cultures, like genomes, are passed on through the generations by replicators which can gradually change over time and which can be subject to selection pressures, just like genes and combinations of genes. The difference is that memes are inherited after birth and so, unlike genes, we can change them and chose which to accept and which to reject. We can also chose which to pass on and which to allow to be consigned to history.
Of course, we normally think of cultures in terms of the big things like religion, national identity, gender role assignments, language, etc., but it can be little things like tunes, fads, fashions, even "this season's colours", the length of hemlines and style of sleeves, tattoos, and earrings... and whether to stick a blade of grass in your ear...
The latter, of course, currently applies to a small troop of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). The behaviour was first seen in a female chimpanzee named Julie who has since died and has since spread to eight of the twelve chimps in her group. She was a member of a one of four groups of chimps in Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, Zambia. Chimps select a suitable piece of grass and then stick it in their ear and leave it there for prolonged periods during which they carry on as normal with routine activities.
Any kind of subculture fad in human culture, I'd say, could be the parallel to this grass-in-ear behavior. Perhaps wearing earrings or certain kinds of hats.A team of researchers from the renowned Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, led by Edwin van Leeuwen, studied all four groups in the sanctuary but only ever observed the behaviour once in one member of another group. There appears to be no particular benefit other than possible group affinity, or fashion and the fact that it's confined almost entirely to one group living in the same environment means environmental and genetic factors can be ruled out. It seems to be purely a fad with no more significance that fads in human society.
Edwin van Leeuwen
Their report was published, sadly behind a paywall, in Animal Cognition
Social learning in chimpanzees has been studied extensively and it is now widely accepted that chimpanzees have the capacity to learn from conspecifics through a multitude of mechanisms. Very few studies, however, have documented the existence of spontaneously emerged traditions in chimpanzee communities. While the rigour of experimental studies is helpful to investigate social learning mechanisms, documentation of naturally occurring traditions is necessary to understand the relevance of social learning in the real lives of animals. In this study, we report on chimpanzees spontaneously copying a seemingly non-adaptive behaviour (“grass-in-ear behaviour”). The behaviour entailed chimpanzees selecting a stiff, straw-like blade of grass, inserting the grass into one of their own ears, adjusting the position, and then leaving it in their ear during subsequent activities. Using a daily focal follow procedure, over the course of 1 year, we observed 8 (out of 12) group members engaging in this peculiar behaviour. Importantly, in the three neighbouring groups of chimpanzees (n = 82), this behaviour was only observed once, indicating that ecological factors were not determiners of the prevalence of this behaviour. These observations show that chimpanzees have a tendency to copy each other’s behaviour, even when the adaptive value of the behaviour is presumably absent.
Edwin J. C. van Leeuwen, Katherine A. Cronin, Daniel B. M. Haun; A group-specific arbitrary tradition in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)
Animal Cognition 1435-9456 June 2014; DOI 10.1007/s10071-014-0766-8
Of course, this is not really surprising because we know that chimps have cultures and even demonstrate not only self-awareness but the ability to empathise with other chimps and even other species, such as humans. So why should we be surprised that they can develop fads and fashions?
The surprising thing is that we think of this are purely humans when in fact, the evidence is that humans simply built on a pre-existing ability which was present in our common ancestors, albeit we developed it to the extremes we see today as we became more cooperative and more intelligent, and spent longer teaching our offspring through their prolonged childhood, and now fads and fashions are part of the glue that binds us into groups with a common identity.
The advertising industry has long understood how memes are passed on and the importance of role models, hence the enormous fees paid to celebrities to wear particular labels or to endorse particular products. And this is all understandable as memes which evolve and change over time, but unlike genes, we can continually change and adopt new ones.
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