Culture and Selective Social Learning in Wild and Captive Primates

  • Stuart K. Watson
  • Jennifer Botting
  • Andrew Whiten
  • Erica van de WaalEmail author
Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER)


Once thought to be a unique human trait, the presence of culture in non-human primates has been confirmed and studied by researchers for several decades. What has been discovered is evidence for between-group traditions in a wide range of primate taxa, including all of the great apes, macaques, capuchins and spider monkeys, as well as many non-primate species. The capacity to learn from others is a powerful means by which animals can acquire adaptive ways of interacting with their environment and each other without engaging in time-consuming and potentially risky trial-and-error learning. However, much remains to be understood about the exact mechanisms and processes that underpin social learning and how these lead to the cultures identified in wild populations of primates, including humans. In the current chapter, we review what is known about non-human primate culture with a particular emphasis on the emerging field of social learning biases. Theoreticians and field researchers alike have suggested that animals may exhibit biases in whom they obtain information from, either as by-products of social dynamics or as adaptive strategies that allow animals to selectively acquire the most useful information. Here, we review the theoretical arguments and current empirical evidence for proposed biases in social learning, including majority-based biases and model-based biases. We draw from field observations and experiments in both captive and wild populations to examine how information may be transferred between individuals and how this may affect the emergence of cultural behaviours across primate species.


Culture Primates Social learning biases Social transmission mechanisms Conformity Model-based biases 



JB, SKW and AW are grateful for the support of grant ID40128, ‘Exploring the evolutionary foundations of cultural complexity, creativity and trust’, from the John Templeton Foundation, and JB is grateful for the support of a grant from the David Bohnett Foundation during the writing of this paper. EW was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (P300P3_151187 and 31003A_159587) and Society in Science—Branco Weiss Fellowship. We thank two anonymous referees for discussion and comments on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stuart K. Watson
    • 1
  • Jennifer Botting
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Andrew Whiten
    • 1
    • 2
  • Erica van de Waal
    • 2
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, and Scottish Primate Research Group, School of Psychology and NeuroscienceUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsUK
  2. 2.Inkawu Vervet Project, Mawana Game Reserve, Swart MfoloziKwaZulu NatalSouth Africa
  3. 3.Smithsonian National Zoological ParkWashington, DCUSA
  4. 4.Anthropological Institute and MuseumUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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