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Not in their genes: Phenotypic flexibility, behavioural traditions and cultural evolution in wild bonnet macaques

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Abstract

Phenotypic flexibility, or the within-genotype, context-dependent, variation in behaviour expressed by single reproductively mature individuals during their lifetimes, often impart a selective advantage to organisms and profoundly influence their survival and reproduction. Another phenomenon apparently not under direct genetic control is behavioural inheritance whereby higher animals are able to acquire information from the behaviour of others by social learning, and, through their own modified behaviour, transmit such information between individuals and across generations. Behavioural information transfer of this nature thus represents another form of inheritance that operates in many animals in tandem with the more basic genetic system. This paper examines the impact that phenotypic flexibility, behavioural inheritance and socially transmitted cultural traditions may have in shaping the structure and dynamics of a primate society — that of the bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata), a primate species endemic to peninsular India. Three principal issues are considered: the role of phenotypic flexibility in shaping social behaviour, the occurrence of individual behavioural traits leading to the establishment of social traditions, and the appearance of cultural evolution amidst such social traditions. Although more prolonged observations are required, these initial findings suggest that phenotypic plasticity, behavioural inheritance and cultural traditions may be much more widespread among primates than have previously been assumed but may have escaped attention due to a preoccupation with genetic inheritance in zoological thinking.

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This paper is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to the late Dr Raja Ramanna, a man who held all primates in great esteem.

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Sinha, A. Not in their genes: Phenotypic flexibility, behavioural traditions and cultural evolution in wild bonnet macaques. J Biosci 30, 51–64 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02705150

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