A few weeks ago, National Geographic announced that recent research has proven that humpback whales, just like chimpanzees, have a culture. Knowledge accumulated by adults (in this case, new hunting methods developed as a result of their normal habitat alteration) is continuously transmitted to the young, from generation to generation. Apparently, there have been numerous studies focused on cultural transmission in cetaceans, dolphins and whales, but this is the first time when the results obtained confirmed the process for humpback whales.
The article in National Geographic, “Do Whales Have Culture? Humpbacks Pass on Behavior: Whales communicate with other humpbacks via social learning, study shows,” inevitably brings to mind human cultural transmission: hunting and gathering practices, survival tools and skills, selection of reproduction partners, etc. But then, how is culture different from education? How are the two dissimilar from art? Is education just another facet of culture or is it a path of initiation in the ideological system of a society? Is art a way to transmit culture down to future generations? Is it an educational tool? Or, is it something altogether different from culture and education?
One of the current exhibitions of the Field Museum of Natural Sciences in Chicago is dedicated to the Lascaux cave paintings in Southern France. Close to 20,000 years old, the Lascaux paintings are not the oldest in the world, as it has been believed for a long time. Cave paintings as old as 40,000 years have been discovered in Spain, and Australia, while others in France and Romania are estimated to date from over 30,000 years ago. In other words, the Lascaux artists were the beneficiaries of a 20,000 year-old tradition. It is no wonder, then, that their work demonstrates a high level of artistic sophistication, not much different from ours today. For instance, the Lascaux Cro Magnon artists show a solid grasp of the principle of alternating light and shadow, which, although they do not incorporate in the actual representation of their subject, they certainly take into account when it comes to the right placement of the paintings in relation to the position of the cave fires. Fire is, in fact, the core element in creating a tridimensional viewing experience and in animating the rock canvas into an ancient movie of sorts. In the flickering light of the ancestral hearth, our ancestors could enjoy bulls appearing to fight with each other, cheetahs running, and wild cats ready to attack their prey.
But that is not all. The Field Museum exhibition makes a point of showing that the Lascaux paintings were not placed randomly, and were organized by thematic galleries, just like in a veritable modern-day art museum. From the Hall of the Bulls to the Chamber of the Felines, the cave is a museum. The Lascaux cave did not only have an artistic function, one where spirituality and ludic come together, but also a cultural mission, meant to transmit much needed survival and self-protection information to future generations, and the educational goal of preserving the religious meanings of animist worship. Culture, education, and art were not clearly defined as separate practices.
Things changed with the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic period, when the accumulation of material resources transformed human society for ever. It may be that the functions of culture separated first from those of art, and then, with the rise of Sumer and the first city states around 4,000-5,000 B.C., from those of education. The organization in city states, socio-political entities headed by religious, and then by military and wealthy leaders made necessary the institutionalization of an education system to inculcate in the young generations the ideological values supporting the status quo, such as the divine nature of the leader, the primacy of communal interests over the individual and so on, thus ensuring the safe perpetuation of the state. Although initially the ideological system implemented through education was not particularly elaborate, and it was mainly guided by religious principles, the development over time of a social hierarchy which had to be justified and protected through more and more laws, transformed education into a hard-to-maneuver jungle, leading to the establishment, during ancient Greece, of the ancestor of today’s formal education system. Education was thus converted into a branch of the state superstructure with the precise mission of justifying the very existence of the state and its leadership, social hierarchy, societal religious precepts, and of indoctrinating young citizens with ideas such as patriotism, ethnic uniqueness, racial superiority, religious righteousness, in order to prepare them for a lifetime of docile subjecthood and self-sacrifice for the greater good (i.e. the state and its leaders).
Paradoxically, while it heavily supported the arts, Greek antiquity also brutally separated them from their educational mission, and pushed them toward ludic and entertaining. Culture, on the other hand, became the preferred method of transmission from generation to generation of practical skills, crafts, and artistic techniques: sculpting, painting, acting, singing, writing. History, on its turn, branched out from culture, first as a memory-keeping discipline, later transformed into an instrument of selective memory and exclusive preservation of what the state and its leaders cared to preserve.
The transmission from generation to generation of hunting practices by the humpback whales or of coconut-cracking techniques using a rock by chimpanzees allows us to take a furtive look into our own past as species. And it challenges us to ponder upon the long way we came over the past five, six million years, since our first ancestor was forced by climate changes to descend from the foliage and find food roaming Eastern Africa’s vast prairies. But also upon the many mistakes we made along that way…