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Generation-to-generation teaching in animals

I feel a strange mixture of elation and numbness every time science finally discovers something that everybody has known all the time. This time it is the fact that animal parents teach their young things that they do not learn by instinct.

The species studies was meerkats (Suricata suricatta). The young are typically reared in a group that is attended to by adults that are not necessarily the parents. Very young meerkats are given dead and harmless food, and as they grow up, the level of “deadness” and harmfulness is decreased by the adults. They may initially bring parts of scorpion to the young, then dead scorpions, then live scorpions without the sting, and finally live scorpions with stings. The researchers got the idea for their experimental settings from this practice:

In one, they took three groups of pups from the same litter. Over a period of four days, one group was given live scorpions minus their stings, one group was given dead scorpions, and the third received boiled eggs as a control.

“Then on the fourth day we tested them all with a live scorpion,” said Dr Thornton, “and lo and behold the one that had practised with the live scorpion was the best out of the three.”

Not very surprising. Now what did Marshall Sahlins say: “Culture is older than the species.” For instance, artefact-making, tools, and various rituals precede Homo sapiens, whatever that is, by millennia.


  1. Matti wrote:

    Well the presence of some culture in animal world can’t be that much news. Just yesterday I observed how Black-throated Divers teach their young to fish. There might be some “instict” (a black box term) in that, but distinct populations will learn distinct strategies. But this is true of every bird species I’ve ever observed.

    Problem with philosophers seems to be that they know next to nothing about science, i.e. ongoing research. They might pride themselves as being onto “hard” scientific worldview, but that only means they know how to unsuccesfully axiomatize old theories. This is naturally as trivial and uninteresting as anything can be, but it passes as “naturalism” or “physicalism”.

    So they come to feel confident in dismissing stuff that everyone just knows even without it being published in Nature. Just because it doesn’t appear as a primitive term in some chosen model. This is known in Finnish as going “perse edellä puuhun”.

    Wednesday, July 19, 2006 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Tere wrote:

    Couldn’t agree more. It seems that there are even physicalists or naturalists who take pride in not knowing what quantum physics is about. I guess this just goes to show that some sciences can be more radical than some philosophies, as some philosophies can be more radical than some sciences. There is no systematic way of knowing who comes “first”.

    The question about animals is a good example. It seems to me that most accounts of the animal in both science and philosophy are just mindbogglingly obviously false. There are bits and pieces that are interesting here and there, but it is hard to collect a happy mix out of them.

    Thursday, July 20, 2006 at 11:42 am | Permalink

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