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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Putting my ideas in one place...

Updated: Feb 23, 2022


I have explained what is encompassed by the term ‘animal culture’ and sketched out examples of aspects of animal cultures, while also drawing attention to their occasionally ambiguous role in survival and well-being.

The question that now arises is: how can something that may have negative as well as positive consequences to survival and/or well-being matter morally, aside from its immediate impact on survival and/or well-being?

There are several responses:

Firstly, much of the information and behaviours encompassed by animal cultures does confer survival and well-being benefits. Evidence suggests that cultural breakdown, leading to disrupted social development, can lessen long-term well-being and survival (Shannon et al. 2013; Bradshaw et al. 2005).

Secondly, for a social animal to be able to survive and flourish at all, she must be part of a society. And that which cements a society as itself and not some other thing is its culture. For a social animal, enacting cultural norms is what makes her ‘one of us’.

These two reasons offer ethicists concerned with the interests or rights of individual animals cause not to disrupt the cultures of wild animal communities. It would be problematic to seek to extract from the culture of a wild animal community those elements which may not be beneficial while retaining the ‘social glue’ that enacting cultural norms confers. However, that is not to state that, were it possible, without causing greater harm, such a project could never be deemed ethical.

Thirdly, as cultures can drive genetic evolution and thus speciation, they can be seen as part of a process of increasing biodiversity; as they allow rapid adaptation, they can enable the survival of populations in a changing environment. Thus, for those ethicists who value biodiversity, cultures are significant.

Fourthly, and this is more speculative, I wish to posit some suggestions:

· That cultures play an epistemological role: knowledge is passed on through cultural groups by social learning and through the means of a shared and culturally specific communication system. As animals do not have libraries, a breakdown of a culture could be seen as an ‘epistemic injustice’ (Fricker 2007).

· That cultures, as they transmit knowledge and communication strategies, enhance animal agency.

· That cultures play a part in the self-realization of individual animals: through cultural practices, individuals develop a ‘way of being’ which amounts to ‘who they are’. This could – though more research and consideration is required – suggest that animal cultures may be integral to an animal’s sense of identity. Note: some animal cultures use signature calls for individuals (names) (Gillam and Chaverri 2012; King and Janik 2013; Berg et al. 2012).

Essentially, I am suggesting that animal cultures may have an ethical significance beyond their proximate benefits to basic survival and even well-being, while their impact on survival and well-being is, in itself, morally significant.


I have demonstrated why I believe that animal cultures matter morally and here will briefly cover some areas in which due consideration of animal cultures is ethically required. I will restrict my discussion to wild animals.

Given the destruction of habitats, steep declines in some populations and climate change, many wild animals are struggling to survive. For some, rising temperatures threaten their existence in their current location (Palmer 2018); for others in reserves, numbers may have increased beyond the carrying capacity of the land; for yet others, tiny population sizes lead to a sharp decrease in genetic diversity (Robertson 2006). For these and similar reasons, conservationists argue for translocations of animals (moving them from one place to another) or ex situ conservation (breeding the animals in captivity and releasing them in a suitable location) (Seddon et al. 2014).[1]

All these practices present various ethical conundrums which I will not discuss here. The point I wish to make is that a failure to consider the cultures of existing populations would be an ethical wrong. Likewise, it would be ethically wrong to create a population or individual that is culturally bereft.

There is one very well-researched example of such a failure. Young male elephants were translocated to Pilanesberg reserve in South Africa. In a traditional elephant culture, young males would remain in their natal group until their mid-teens and then join a male group, in which they would learn appropriate sexual and social behaviour from older males. Instead, they witnessed the cull of family members and were translocated without experienced male role models. They exhibited violent behaviour: attempting to mate with and killing rhinoceroses. When older males were introduced, the socially maladaptive behaviours decreased dramatically (Bradshaw and Schore 2007).

Teaching animals how to forage, avoid predation and migrate, while critical, is just part of the cultural package animals require. What is critical, I suggest, is knowing how to be - and feeling like - a member of that culture[2].

Whether ethicists are concerned with the survival of a species or the well-being or rights of individual animals, consideration of the culture, not just the species or the individual, is of critical importance. For example, without considering culture, an ethicist might be unaware that the presence of experienced female orcas or elephants is critical to the well-being and survival of the rest of the family (McComb et al. 2001; Foster et al. 2012); or that captive-bred parrots might be unable to communicate with wild-born conspecifics as they had developed their own dialect (Martínez and Logue 2020).

If any human intervention into the lives of wild animals is to be ethical, that intervention must take into account the culture of that population.


In a paper of this length, discussion is of necessity brief. However, I have defined what animal cultures are and explained why they matter. I have argued that for any ethicist concerned with the survival and/or well-being of social animals as individuals or as species animal cultures merit ethical consideration.


Berg, Karl S., Soraya Delgado, Kathryn A. Cortopassi, Steven R. Beissinger, and Jack W. Bradbury. 2012. ‘Vertical Transmission of Learned Signatures in a Wild Parrot’. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279 (1728): 585–91.

Bradshaw, G. A., and Allan N. Schore. 2007. ‘How Elephants Are Opening Doors: Developmental Neuroethology, Attachment and Social Context’. Ethology 113 (5): 426–36.

Bradshaw, G. A., Allan N. Schore, Janine L. Brown, Joyce H. Poole, and Cynthia J. Moss. 2005. ‘Elephant Breakdown’. Nature 433 (7028): 807–807.

Brakes, Philippa, Emma L. Carroll, Sasha R. X. Dall, Sally A. Keith, Peter K. McGregor, Sarah L. Mesnick, Michael J. Noad, et al. 2021. ‘A Deepening Understanding of Animal Culture Suggests Lessons for Conservation’. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 288 (1949): rspb.2020.2718, 20202718.


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Foley, Charles, Nathalie Pettorelli, and Lara Foley. 2008. ‘Severe Drought and Calf Survival in Elephants’. Biology Letters 4 (5): 541–44.

Foster, Emma A., Daniel W. Franks, Sonia Mazzi, Safi K. Darden, Ken C. Balcomb, John K. B. Ford, and Darren P. Croft. 2012. ‘Adaptive Prolonged Postreproductive Life Span in Killer Whales’. Science 337 (6100): 1313–1313.

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Garland, Ellen C., Anne W. Goldizen, Melinda L. Rekdahl, Rochelle Constantine, Claire Garrigue, Nan Daeschler Hauser, M. Michael Poole, Jooke Robbins, and Michael J. Noad. 2011. ‘Dynamic Horizontal Cultural Transmission of Humpback Whale Song at the Ocean Basin Scale’. Current Biology 21 (8): 687–91.

Gillam, Erin, and Gloriana Chaverri. 2012. ‘Strong Individual Signatures and Weaker Group Signatures in Contact Calls of Spix’s Disc-Winged Bat, Thyroptera Tricolor’. Animal Behaviour 83 (January): 269–76.

Hanson, M. Bradley, Candice K. Emmons, Michael J. Ford, Meredith Everett, Kim Parsons, Linda K. Park, Jennifer Hempelmann, et al. 2021. ‘Endangered Predators and Endangered Prey: Seasonal Diet of Southern Resident Killer Whales’. PLOS ONE 16 (3): e0247031.

Haswell, P. M., and P. Haswell. 2013. ‘Life and Behaviour of Wolves: Wolf Pup Development’. Wolf Print 48 (Spring): 14–15.

King, Stephanie L., and Vincent M. Janik. 2013. ‘Bottlenose Dolphins Can Use Learned Vocal Labels to Address Each Other’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July.

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McComb, K., C. Moss, S. M. Durant, L. Baker, and S. Sayialel. 2001. ‘Matriarchs as Repositories of Social Knowledge in African Elephants’. Science (New York, N.Y.) 292 (5516): 491–94.

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Robertson, Bruce C. 2006. ‘The Role of Genetics in Kakapo Recovery’. Notornis 53: 173–83.

Romeu, Bianca, Mauricio Cantor, Carolina Bezamat, Paulo C. Simões‐Lopes, and Fábio G. Daura‐Jorge. 2017. ‘Bottlenose Dolphins That Forage with Artisanal Fishermen Whistle Differently’. Ethology 123 (12): 906–15.

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Seddon, Philip J., Christine J. Griffiths, Pritpal S. Soorae, and Doug P. Armstrong. 2014. ‘Reversing Defaunation: Restoring Species in a Changing World’. Science 345 (6195): 406–12.

Shannon, Graeme, Rob Slotow, Sarah M Durant, Katito N Sayialel, Joyce Poole, Cynthia Moss, and Karen McComb. 2013. ‘Effects of Social Disruption in Elephants Persist Decades after Culling’. Frontiers in Zoology 10 (1): 62.

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[1] A more radical suggestion is de-extinction, in which an extinct animal (the archetypal example is the woolly mammoth) is genetically re-created (ibid.). [2] There are good examples of humans respecting animal culture and enabling orphans to return to wild living (see and

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