Establishing an experimental science of culture: animal social diffusion experiments


A growing set of observational studies documenting putative cultural variations in wild animal populations has been complemented by experimental studies that can more rigorously distinguish between social and individual learning. However, these experiments typically examine only what one animal learns from another. Since the spread of culture is inherently a group-level phenomenon, greater validity can be achieved through `diffusion experiments’, in which founder behaviours are experimentally manipulated and their spread across multiple individuals tested. Here we review the existing corpus of 33 such studies in fishes, birds, rodents and primates and offer the first systematic analysis of the diversity of experimental designs that have arisen. We distinguish three main transmission designs and seven different experimental/control approaches, generating an array with 21 possible cells, 15 of which are currently represented by published studies. Most but not all of the adequately controlled diffusion experiments have provided robust evidence for cultural transmission in at least some taxa, with transmission spreading across populations of up to 24 individuals and along chains of up to 14 transmission events. We survey the achievements of this work, its prospects for the future and its relationship to diffusion studies with humans discussed in this theme issue and elsewhere.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 363, 3477–3488.