What happened about 120 thousand years ago when we became Homo sapiens and moreover what has made us “superior” to other animals and other Ominids, like the Homo neanderthalensis? The reasons could be many and different among themselves.
What is sure is that culture has certainly been a very important factor, more than the enlargement of the brain, the upright standing and the language itself.
Animal and human culture
Culture is knowledge and skills that we acquire and it has distant roots and is more ancient than man. There is a knowledge and behaviour that exist in animals and man that can be born, grow, develop or regress with time and that cannot be easily bent to the wish of a single man.
Culture can assume an anthropological, biological, sociological and also political meaning, according to the social context in which it was born and develops. It is an ideal patrimony but also technological material which comes from knowledge and experiences with the invented instrument. All of which depend on adequate creativity, emulative capability, and innovativeness for their use.
Among all animals which one has the most similar qualities to man? The answer is the chimpanzee, but as we will see not only them. The chimpanzee makes small sticks that they thread into the termitaries to extract the insects of which they are very greedy or they use some medicinal herbs to cure irritable bowel syndrome, or they use stones as a hammer to break open hard walnuts that cannot be done with their teeth. In this way, a fellow, man or animal, using an instrument totally new or invented, take advantage, firstly for itself, then when it is diffused the advantage is for all the group in which they live. Naturally, for this to occur, a desire of emulation and a good memory are necessary. Moreover willingness to play socially is one of the most important carriers of the consciousness.
Chimpanzees, culture and language
In order to communicate man uses the articulate language, however we may ask ourselves if it has been indispensable for the beginning and the diffusion of the human culture. Moreover, without language, how could we build simple or complex instruments, and spread their use and their utility, for instance that of a key, or a computer or of an airplane? Almost everyone believes that the language has been a solution to solving the problems of communication among men, substantially that it was a discovery as a cultural phenomenon.
The truth is that culture can grow, spread and evolve even without the use of language. Certainly the language is very useful, does everything quickly, especially for the spread of knowledge, but as many animals show, monkeys in particular, it is not absolutely indispensable for communication or for the spreading of culture.
Language in our evolution has always been under the control of our brain. All of us have a predisposition to learn and to use a language, any language, but we can make culture without delivering a sound. Many people believe that culture was born in a precise place of our Planet and that afterwards from there on it spread, modifying itself according to social rules within human groups and from the moment they had been separated and isolated from one another for centuries, cultural differences and in the end linguistic ones originated. The fact is that things did not go in this way. If they had, culture would have been a hereditary characteristic as many others, for instance the colour of our skin or the shape of our nose.
Culture cannot be inherited, otherwise from Albert Einstein another Einstein should have been born, from Pablo Picasso another Picasso, etcetera, but as we know, fortunately, it has not gone in this way. Religions, and hand-made tools which were similar among themselves but not quite the same, were born and developed in a remote past when human groups were far away from one another and were separated by oceans, when there was no means of transport to get from one place to another.
The macaques of Japan
To better understand what we are talking about, let us take as a cultural model some different types of behaviour that rise and develop, this time, not among chimpanzees but among the macaques of Japan (Macaca fuscata). These types of behaviour regard the alimentation and its diffusion of eat as much food as soon as possible. The behaviour was not a routine because who manifested it for the first time, then modified it, improved it and in the end it was diffused through the community.
These phenomena were observed by some Japanese researchers of Kyoto University on a small island located in the south of the country, called Koshima. Nowadays these phenomena are very well known by the experts and also by the common people (washing potatos, decanting wheat, playing with stones and so on). These types of behaviour had not been seen anywhere before, neither nearby, nor far away from Koshima. In winter in the mountains of Japan the temperature can reach 20° Celsius below zero. Some macaques were observed solving the problem of such cold. Some of them, quite young individuals, submerged themselves in thermal pools, quite common at those altitudes, until their necks and the mothers sometimes with their own infants clinging to their breast to feel, even if for a moment, a lukewarm comfort. Then they come out, then again go back to the pools continuously, with a positive reflex influence on the whole community: the social tensions decrease, grooming increases and the social play among the young also increases. Before the discovery of these phenomena it has always been thought that the Japanese macaques could execute only teaching tasks as in an operant condition by, giving them a prize after executing a task successfully, also they could be trained to jump, to walk along a rope, to catch a ball in flight or other similar things. In this way, as we know, we can train many animals, dogs, pigeons, tigers and killer-whales.
Charles Darwin and chimpanzees
Charles Darwin wrote that there are no fundamental mental differences between man and “superior” mammals and that the “inferior” animals and man clearly can feel pain, pleasure, joy and sadness. These words of Darwin, written in 1871 in the The descent of man shows the crucial question of the man-animal relation very well and now without doubt we can say that for example, the chimpanzee (but not just them) can make inferences, think for analogy, can be creative and distinguish one geometric figure from another, they can also count till five and distinguish ten different colours. Moreover they need to feel socially secure, affection, a sense of belonging and be solid with their fellows in difficulty. They can slip into depression and like humans they can feel our same emotions: anger, fear, sadness, surprise and disgust.
The chimpanzees that live in the Savannah find some cultural model useful in accordance with an environment poor of resources and dry. In fact during the hottest hours they shelter in some caves to preserve energy, avoiding thermal stress. They know how to go in search of rainwater and when they have located it, for instance in a hollow tree that they cannot reach with their hands they tear a leafy branch off a tree and slip it into such a hollow so that the water, like a sponge, is absorbed and they pass it between their lips. But chimpanzees can do things more complex than these, for instance with a stone in one hand and another in the other hand they chip stones with movements that are very similar to those performed by our ancestors when they made the first tools (chopping tools) about 2.5 million years ago (lytic technology) or for cutting the skin of captured animals. Naturally chimpanzees do not make chopping tools for this purpose, but they can smash hard nuts of a certain dimension that cannot be opened differently. But with their teeth they are able to cut ropes tied round a tin where researchers had hidden some bananas.
Since we have appeared on Earth many things have naturally changed, but it is in the last centuries that our relation with nature has deteriorated so much as to put our existence into danger. A discouraging picture is coming about in relation with the melting of glaciers, pollution, the hole in the ozone, deforestation, and many other disasters caused by man. We always try to avail ourselves of our cultural, cognitive and intellectual qualities, always thinking to be superior to all other species of animals, forgetting that we are also animals. The fact is that the dynamic system of life on Earth is too complex to control with our technology and science. Instead, we have to adapt ourselves to the ecological system, not changing it or caging it to our pleasure. In fact hurricanes or other disasters like earthquakes are sufficient to show that our technology is not enough to avoid them.
Now a doubt arises. Why does Homo sapiens consider himself the most intelligent animal of the Universe when it is clear that we are destroying ourselves? To save our Planet it is better to understand our limits by creating a real hope. Why do we not understand it? At a certain point of our evolution it happened that we did not want to admit to be a result of a natural evolutionary process that followed different ways from our expectations and our convictions. When we admit it maybe it will be too late. All that is left for us to do will be a palliative.