Do humans ‘own’ culture?

Thursday 26 September 2002

Experts in evolution and animal behaviour will gather next week to debate whether chimpanzee ‘culture’ is any less real than human culture – the outcome of which may lead to a rethink of the human evolution process.

The group will gather in London to examine the evidence of 150 years worth of data on chimpanzee cultural variation accumulated by internationally-renowned researcher Professor Andrew Whiten and his colleagues at the University of St. Andrews, who gathered the data from long-term research stations in Africa.

A panel of experts will debate whether the proven richness of culture in chimpanzees undermines the ‘uniqueness’ of human culture at ‘Do Humans Own Culture?’, a public British Academy / Royal Society event in London next Wednesday (2nd October), organised to celebrate the centenary of the Academy. Professor Andrew Whiten, Professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Psychology and Coordinator of the University’s Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, is chief speaker at the meeting.

As many as 39 cultural variants have been found by Professor Whiten’s team – covering aspects of tool use, communication and grooming rituals – a testament to the inventiveness of this species.

Professor Whiten said: “This is cultural behaviour, which is passed on by some kind of observational learning process. One chimpanzee learns from another, in contrast to inheriting behaviours through genetics.”

“Cultural variations amongst humans have for long been documented by historians and by anthropologists charting regional differences. Yet despite the fact that we and our ancestors have shared the planet with our closest relatives for millennia, it is only now that we can begin to contemplate a similar analysis for chimpanzees”.

Opposing members of the panel will argue that culture remains a unique quality of humanity. Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik said: “Humans do not simply acquire habits from others. We also constantly innovate, transforming ourselves, individually and collectively, in the process. There is a fundamental difference between a process by which certain chimpanzees have learnt to crack open palm-nuts using two stones as ‘hammer’ and ‘anvil’, and a process through which humans have created the industrial revolution, unravelled the secrets of their own genome, developed the concept of universal rights – and have come to debate whether humans own culture”.

Andrew Whiten and Kenan Malik will be joined at the discussion by a panel of leading experts from across the social and natural sciences, including Patrick Bateson, one of the world’s foremost authorities on animal behaviour. ENDS

For further press information, contact Jonathan Breckon at the British Academy Press Office Tel: 020 7969 5263, mobile: 07813 762 527, email: [email protected]


1. Do Humans Own Culture? Royal Society and British Academy Panel Discussion will take place at the Royal Society, Wednesday 2 October at 6.30pm – 8.00pm. . Any journalist wishing to interview the speakers should contact Jonathan Breckon (Telephone 020 7969 5263). 2. The speakers are: Patrick Bateson FRS is Professor of Ethology in the University of Cambridge and Vice-President of the Royal Society; Robert Hinde FBA, FRS (Chairman) was formerly a Royal Society Research Professor in the University of Cambridge; Caroline Humphrey FBA Professor of Asian Anthropology, University of Cambridge; Kenan Malik Writer, researcher, lecturer and broadcaster. Author of Man, Beast and Zombie; Andrew Whiten FBA, FRSE Professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Psychology in the University of St Andrews and Coordinator of the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution.

3. Kenan Malik and Andrew Whiten are available for interview.

4. The British Academy and Royal Society are sister academies. The Royal Society is the world’s oldest scientific academy, having been at the forefront of enquiry and discovery since its foundation in 1660., and plays a crucial role as the champion of top quality science and technology.

5. The British Academy, established by Royal Charter in 1902, is an independent learned society promoting the humanities and social sciences. It is composed of Fellows elected in recognition of their distinction as scholars in the humanities and social sciences.


Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email [email protected] Ref: Whiten BA&RS Event pr270902 View the latest University news at

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