Rendell, L., and H. Whitehead. In press. Cetacean culture and the meaning of identity. In: Culture and meanings among apes, ancient humans and modern humans. Edited by F. Joulian. Balland, Paris.
The presence and nature of cultural processes in non-human animals is an area of some controversy, not least because of the differing perspectives offered by disciplines that each bring their own cultural context to the subject. This debate, which started in Japan well before McGrew (1978) brought it to western attention (de Waal 2001), is currently expanding to incorporate a body of compelling evidence for cultural processes in cetaceans, the whales and dolphins. Cetaceans provide an interesting contrast to the study of culture in humans and other terrestrial animals, since they inhabit a radically different environment and represent an independent evolution of social learning and cultural transmission. The evidence now available describes some interesting and rare patterns of behavioural variation in the wild, that most likely result from cultural transmission (Rendell and Whitehead 2001). There can be little doubt that cetaceans are among the most socially and cognitively complex non-humans. For example, the only non-human example of second-order social alliances (that is, alliances between alliances) comes from the bottlenose dolphin (Connor et al. 1999). This same species can use abstract representations of objects, actions and concepts to guide behaviour (Herman et al. 1994); it also parallels humans and great apes in being capable of mirror-self recognition (Reiss and Marino 2001). To what extent is this social and cognitive complexity reflected in the cultures of cetaceans? We argue that culture may have an important impact on the behaviour, genetic evolution and population structure of cetacean species, and, further, that the importance of cultural identity is not just a human attribute. This chapter draws heavily on our previous discussion of cetacean culture (Rendell and Whitehead 2001). While culture and cultural transmission have been briefly discussed in the context of cetaceans by a number of authors (see Rendell and Whitehead 2001) there has until recently been little cross-over with other disciplines. Our aim here is straightforward: we hope to extend cross-disciplinary debate in a way that both challenges and stimulates, by discussing cetacean cultural processes in an anthropological context. Anthropology is anthropocentric by definition, and so the study of non-human culture is most often seen as an attempt to understand human culture by understanding its and our ancestors; hence small wonder that most attention is given to primates. However, the study of culture is wider than this, and we find ourselves at an exciting point of inter-disciplinary contact where anthropologists, psychologists and, increasingly, evolutionary ecologists like ourselves, are seeking to forge a common conception of what culture is and how to study it across species. Before we review culture in cetaceans, we discuss the differing approaches that have been taken to the study of non-human culture, and explicitly set out the influence that our own academic cultural inheritance has upon our reading of the culture concept. We then briefly review the evidence for and the evolution of culture in cetaceans, and discuss the possibility that cultural processes may explain some unusual behavioural, life-history, and genetic patterns of whales and dolphins. Finally we attempt to confront the anthropological notions of meaning and identity with our evidence and perspective.
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