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Animal Social Complexity - Intelligence and Culture 245

Posted by timothy
from the don't-look-around-too-hard dept.
danny writes "How are brain size and intelligence related to social complexity? What are the evolutionary underpinnings of cooperation? How sophisticated are animal communication and social cognition? And do animals have culture? Read on for my review of Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture, and Individualized Societies."
Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence and Culture
author Frans de Waal and Peter Tyack
pages 616 pages
publisher Harvard University Press
rating 9
reviewer Danny Yee
ISBN 0674009290
summary 18 papers on primates, cetaceans, other mammals and birds

How are brain size and intelligence related to social complexity? What are the evolutionary underpinnings of cooperation? How sophisticated are animal communication and social cognition? And do animals have culture? These are some of the broad questions addressed by the eighteen papers in Animal Social Complexity, which look not only at primates and cetaceans, but also at hyenas, elephants, bats, and birds. The common focus is on societies that are individualized, with members recognising each other as individuals, and stable, with long-lived members and on-going relationships, and in which there are learned survival skills and social behaviours. Some of the papers are overviews of particular species or taxa, some address specific questions in the context of a particular species, and some present cross-species comparisons.

Consisting of the papers from a conference held in 2000, Animal Social Complexity is a professional volume, complete with a hundred pages of references. But the topics covered are of widespread interest, and the multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of the papers makes them mostly accessible to the lay reader.

Carel Van Schaik and Robert Deaner present a life history perspective on cognitive evolution: demonstrating a link between social complexity and intelligence/brain size is complicated because both are correlated with long life spans. Randall Wells presents an outline of dolphin social complexity based on long-term studies on the communities in Sarasota Bay, Florida. And Katy Payne gives an overview of social complexity in the three elephant species.

Christophe Boesch describes examples of complex cooperation among Tai chimpanzees, in group hunts for monkeys and in territorial conflict with other chimpanzee groups. Christine Drea and Laurence Frank describe the social system of spotted hyenas and argue that more attention should be paid to social complexity in carnivores. It has commonly been argued that social stress is a consequence of subordination; Scott Creel and Jennifer Sands present evidence suggesting that it may in fact be a cost of domination, at least in some species.

Three of the papers debate the underlying mechanisms of social cognition. Ronald Schusterman et al. argue for equivalence classifications as a basic structure. In contrast, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney argue that "nonhuman primates are innately predisposed to group other individuals into hierarchical classes". And for Frans de Waal the conditionality of behaviour suggests a role for if-then structures in primate "social syntax".

Taking a comparative approach to laughter and smiling in primates, Jan Van Hoof and Signe Preuschoft find that "laughter has evolved in the context of joyful play, and that the broad smile has evolved as an expression of nonhostility and friendliness, taking its origin in the expression of fearful submission". Looking at vocal learning in four parrot species from Costa Rica, Jack Bradbury suggests that in "ecology, social organization, and vocal communication, parrots appear to be more convergent with dolphins than they are with other birds".

Gerald Wilkinson looks to bats for an independent test of the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis, probing the relationships between brain size, vocal complexity, and colony size. And Peter Tyack explores bottlenose dolphins' use of signature whistles in communicating social relationships.

Following in the footsteps of Imanishi, pioneer of Japanese primatology, Tetsuro Matsuzawa considers, as examples of "culture", sweet potato washing among Koshima monkeys and nut cracking using stone tools by Bossou chimpanzees. Toshisada Nishida describes the "flexibility and individuality of cultural behavior patterns" among chimpanzees at Mahale. And in "Ten Dispatches from the Chimpanzee Culture Wars" William McGrew gives an overview of the arguments between cultural anthropologists, psychologists, and primatologists (among others) over chimpanzee culture -- and over the definition of culture.

Hal Whitehead looks at sperm whales, the cetacean culture debate more generally, and the possible effects of "cultural hitchhiking" on genetic diversity. And Meredith West et al. find a critical role for social interaction in learning and development in cowbirds and starlings.

In addition to the eighteen papers, there are a dozen shorter "case studies" which tackle narrower questions. Animal Social Complexity is an important contribution to the scientific literature. And it has a wealth of material for anyone fascinated by social animals and not intimidated by scientific methodology, a little bit of statistics, references and scholarly language.


Danny Yee has written over 700 book reviews. You can purchase Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence and Culture from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Animal Social Complexity - Intelligence and Culture

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  • Art Bell (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @03:06PM (#8251539)
    That's the same show that rants and raves about floridation, radio transmitters in $20 bills, HAARP, black helicopters, tinfoil helmets, vast ruined cities on Mars, and ancient astronaut theories.
  • by jd (1658) <imipak@yaCOLAhoo.com minus caffeine> on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @03:11PM (#8251598) Homepage Journal
    Brain size is usually taken in relation to something else, and not as an absolute value.


    Popular measures include relating brain size to body mass or body complexity. The premise of these measures is that you've got to factor out the overheads. In computer terms, it's similar to the concept of looking at RAM in terms of the OS requirements, and the overheads for each thread.


    Another popular measure looks at the number of folds in the neocortex, but this only works on animals with a neocortex, so it's really not a generalizable measure.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @03:13PM (#8251619)
    Its not a matter of the size of the brain. Its a matter of the brain's peaks and valleys (sulci and gyri). The more sulci and gyri, the higher the brain mass and greater complexity. Humans, by far, have the most sulci and gyri in our smaller brains. This allows for more brain in a smaller container!
  • by The Ape With No Name (213531) on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @03:17PM (#8251654) Homepage
    Carruthers, Mary. The book of memory : a study of memory in medieval culture / Mary J. Carruthers. Cambridge [England] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1990

    A multi-disciplinary approach to how medieval memory was constituted. Carruthers goes into how modern memory is "documentary" rather than "rote." Really dense and good book that avoids the pitfalls of behaviorism that animal psychologists can fall into. Since I haven't read the above papers, I would assume these folks are enlightened by contemporary critical psychology.

    Also:

    Elias, Norbert. The civilizing process : sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations / Norbert Elias ; translated by Edmund Jephcott with some notes and corrections by the author ; edited by Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom, and Stephen Mennell. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass. : Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

    This book goes into the role that manners play in European elitism. Absolutely fascinating. Don't be put off by the Freudian "psychogenesis" stuff, it is a veritable treasure trove and fun to read as well with lots of "Don't wipe your ass then show it to your wife" stuff from the 13th C.

  • Re:Interesting idea (Score:2, Informative)

    by Dan the Intern (649261) on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @03:23PM (#8251724)
    That depends on what opne considers "culture." Coincidentally, I just started taking an elective in cultural anthropology. One of the first things we discussed in the class was animals and culture. It seems that chimpanzees can actually use tree branches to dig termites out of their mounds. I know this isn't new, but I think that learned tool use is at least the beginnings of culture.
  • Re:Interesting idea (Score:5, Informative)

    by panurge (573432) on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @03:32PM (#8251820)
    Most of the human race couldn't write The Marriage of Figaro (sic). You're confusing high culture (play written by senior French civil servant) with culture, i.e. tribally distinct behavior patterns.

    As an example, while we're on France around the Revolution, Mariane is often portrayed in French painting as bare breasted. The acceptability of this is an example of a cultural difference between the French of the period and the US of the Superbowl incident. If one tribe of chimpanzees has a characteristic behavior pattern that differs from that of another tribe - there is some ground for discussing whether this is a cultural difference akin to the difference between French and American beach behavior, or the difference between American and European uses of knives and forks.

  • Re:Pet peeve. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Sgt York (591446) <jvolm&earthlink,net> on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @03:40PM (#8251913)
    But here's my question, what makes an "animal" an "animal"??

    Any life form that is obligate multicellular, posseses distinct organ systems, is heterophagic and capable of controlled, self-sustained motion at some point in its life cycle is an animal. Humans are animals in the biological sense. We are not a Kingdom unto ourselves.

  • by orthogonal (588627) on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @03:47PM (#8252002) Journal
    I will reiterate my recommendation of Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.

    As long as you also warn those you recommend that Gould wrote Mismeasure, in large part, to aid in the campaign -- largely grounded in Marxist ideology rather than science -- of denigration of E.O. Wilson and Sociobiology.

    To put Gould (and Rose and Lewontin) in context, recommend also Ullica Segerstrale 's Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond, a dense but thoroughly entertaining look at Sociobiology (and later, Evolutionary Psychology) and its ideological attackers.

    Basically, E.O. Wilson (since "rehabilitated" among the leftist crowd for his string environmental advocacy) was ruthlessly hounded by Gould and his supporters, for purely ideological reasons. One popular chant of the time was "Racist Wilson you can't hide, we charge you with genocide!" -- once culminating in dousing Wilson with a pitcher* cold water at a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (One anti-Wilson witness dismisses this assault by complaining that he remembers it as a "small paper cup" -- as if it's ok to disrupt scientific discourse with mob aggression so long you only throw "small cups" of water at those you disagree with.)

    The brief take-home point: Gould is known in the lay community -- outside the science and biology community -- as a great defender of evolution against the religious right. Inside the scientific community, the opinion of Gould is far more equivocal, with many considering Gould to have served to discredit evolutionary theory in favor of the "punctuationism" pseudo-theory and Marxist ideology. To some, Gould's actions on Wilson and Sociobiology demonstrate his lack of scientific objectivity.

    (Personal note: I hope this post serves to confound anyone who assumed that I'm anti-Bush and anti-Ashcroft because I'm some "hippy-dippy" leftist. ;) )
  • Re:Interesting idea (Score:3, Informative)

    by shawb (16347) on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @05:15PM (#8253040)
    Transmitted Behavior Patterns: Koko and Michael [koko.org]> the gorillas learning sign language [pbs.org] is a fine example of animals learning.

    Arts: the Bowerbird [wikipedia.org] will Decorate [google.com] it's nest, actively arranging objects in a way that suits his aesthetic.
    Koko and Michael the gorillas are also known for their paintings. [koko.org]

    Beliefs? This one is Tricky. I'll leave it up to someone else to tackle this for now. Although animals showing signs of mourning (evidence shown under institutions) forms a good basis for beliefs.

    Institutions? Such as social hierarchy. That is found all over in nature... wolf packs, bee/termite hives...
    And the "human" institution of mourning the dead? Let's see... koko again. [koko.org] And Elephants mourning their dead [google.com] is a well documented phenomenon.
  • Weird bee trivia (Score:5, Informative)

    by drox (18559) on Wednesday February 11, 2004 @05:30PM (#8253213)
    Ants bees and termites have an advantage when it comes to social complexity though: because they have a queen (rather than the workers reproducing directly) a fundamentally different Darwinian dynamic happens, that encourages cooperation.

    It's not just the Darwinian dynamic that encourages cooperation; it's helped along by pheromones from the queen bee. These pheromones inhibit the sexual development of the worker bees (who are all sexually immature females as a result).

    Deprived of a queen (and her pheromones) for a sufficient time, some worker bees will stop cooperating and will begin to lay eggs. They also begin to secrete the same pheromone that queen bees secrete, inducing other worker bees to feed and groom them as though they were the queen.

    However... these egg-laying worker bees have never mated. Indeed they can't mate; they never developed the required anatomy. So they lay only unfertilized eggs, which, due to a strange quirk of bee biology, develop into male bees (male bees all come from unfertilized eggs - they have no fathers and no sons!). A hive with laying workers is soon teeming with males, who do no work and cannot even feed themselves, but who CAN mate with queen bees (from another hive - remember this hive's queenless) and thus carry on the bee's genetic legacy.

    Worker bees aren't truly sterile; they're just *mostly* sterile.

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