Becoming Wild: The Quest to Uncover Animal Culture

Many consider "culture" to be a uniquely human endeavor. Ecologist Carl Safina disagrees.

By Devon Frye, published April 17, 2020 - last reviewed on May 5, 2020

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Is culture—the customs and specialized knowledge passed down within social groups—uniquely human? To Stony Brook University ecologist Carl Safina, the answer is a firm no. In his book Becoming Wild, Safina examines how three species—sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees—build what he identifies as culture, passing down traditions, appreciating beauty, and negotiating peace. In the process, he calls on humans to reckon with whether we’re as special as we think.

Why do some cling fiercely to the idea that culture is strictly human?

People are very insecure—we like to insist that we’re the only species that matters. But there’s also just been a lack of information up until now. We’ve studied wild animals’ behavior, in any formal way, only since about 1960. The cultural differences were not studied, not seen, and not appreciated.

What are some examples of nonhuman culture?

Sperm whales live in family groups organized into clans. Because of what are called codas, or [clan-specific] patterns of clicks, sperm whales know whether whales they’ve never met before are part of their clan. Every other creature—except humans—can identify only ingroup members that it is already familiar with.

Where do human and animal cultures part ways?

In life, everything is on a continuum. We’re the only species that knows how to make fire, for instance, so one could argue that there’s a cultural break-point there. But there are birds that transport fire to scare out prey—so we’re not alone in using fire.

Could understanding animal culture change our relationship with nature?

In one sense, recognizing that animals have culture costs us a share of what we thought our significance was. But in another sense, it shows that what we do is more important than we used to think. There’s been a huge psychological shift over several hundred years from a stance where nature is a danger to defend against to a stance where it has vulnerabilities that we have to protect.