The Tinbergen Legacy

pp 75-99

The nature of culture

  • Juan D. DeliusAffiliated withUniversität Konstanz

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Niko Tinbergen laid great stress on the essential importance of cultural evolution for the understanding of human behaviour although he never, of course, made it a central subject of his research interests. In a short cautionary note about the future of humanity he wrote for example that ‘our unique position in the modern world is due to the consequences of our cultural evolution, which … has … progressively … superimposed (itself) on our still ongoing genetic evolution’ and that ‘we transfer …, from one generation to the next, not only our genetic heritage but also (our) accumulated non-genetically acquired … experience’ (Tinbergen, 1977, see also Tinbergen, 1976). Niko’s insights into the details of the processes of cultural evolution went much further than his writings reflect, however. A casual but memorable conversation between him and Konrad Lorenz in Stuttgart, Germany in 1959, at which I happened to be present, revealed that clearly. The role of song behaviour as a species-isolating mechanism in some sympatric birds had somehow cropped up. They were considering the selective forces that might have shaped the divergence of song patterns in such situations when Niko raised the important question: Selection of what? Surely not genes since the song of these birds was likely to be learned, not innate.