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August 22, 2005 —
ATLANTA -- Humans are not alone in their desire to conform to cultural
norms, according to new study findings that confirm, for the first
time, chimpanzees share the same conformist tendencies. Researchers, in
determining how chimpanzee communities share and maintain traditions,
discovered they possess a natural motivation to copy their peers well
into adulthood and say that although other species show some cultural
behaviors, the level of cultural variation shown by chimpanzees is
exceeded only by humans. The study, conducted at the Yerkes National
Primate Research Center of Emory University by a collaborative team of
scientists from the United States and the United Kingdom, is published
in the current online edition of Nature.
Unlike previous studies that used human models for cultural-learning
experiments with chimpanzees, researchers Victoria Horner, PhD, and
Frans B. M. de Waal, PhD, of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes
Research Center, and Andrew Whiten, PhD, of the University of St.
Andrews, Scotland, applied a unique method that extends the
experimental approach to the group
level, focuses on ape-to-ape transmission and uses a
two-action methodology. This approach bridges the gap between two
conventional research methods: population-level observations on wild
apes and one-to-one social learning experiments.
In the study, researchers introduced a naturalistic foraging
task into three groups (two experimental and one control) to see if
chimpanzees can learn by observation. While unseen by other
chimpanzees, researchers taught a high-ranking female from each of the
two experimental groups a different way, either Lift or Poke, to
retrieve food from a system of tubes called Pan-pipes. Once the two
females mastered the task, other chimpanzees within their groups were
allowed to watch them perform the new skill over a seven-day period
before all group members were allowed to use the tool. According to the
researchers, group members gathered around the local expert, watched
attentively and proved successful when allowed to try the task on their
own. The third group, which did not have the benefit of a local expert
and was left to decipher the task on its own, was unsuccessful in
retrieving food from the Pan-pipes.
"This study demonstrates apes do copy members of their own
species and they develop different traditions by doing so," said Dr.
Horner. "It makes it likely differences in tool use between wild
chimpanzee communities in Africa indeed reflect a form of culture and
establishes another link between human and chimpanzee societies."
The conformity bias finding was an unexpected, but equally
important, result of this culture study, according to Dr. Horner. A few
members of each group independently discovered the alternative method
for freeing food from the Pan-pipes, but this knowledge did not
endanger the groups' traditions because most of these chimpanzees
reverted back to the norm set by their local expert. "Choosing the
group norm over the alternative method shows a level of conformity we
usually associate only with our own species," said Dr. Horner. "By
using the group's technique rather than the alternative method, we see
the conformity is based more on a social bond with other group members
than the simple reward of freeing the food."
A characteristic traditionally thought to be solely human, the
propensity to conform, may be part of an evolutionary progression.
"These results suggest an ancient origin for the cultural conformism
that is so evident in humans," said de Waal. "Further research may
reveal these findings to be more widespread throughout the animal
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