From Chimpan-ae to Chimpanzee

The title of this post is taken from a fictional musical production of Planet of the Apes in an episode of The Simpsons – it comes to mind and makes me smile every time I hear the word chimpanzee. With the latest film in the rebooted franchise soon to be released, it felt apt to go ape this week. So what separates us from chimpanzees? In some nightclubs, not much, but when it comes to cultural learning, quite a bit. Over the past few weeks, my meandering reading has taken me into the world of cultural anthropology. I’ve consequently discovered all sorts of interesting things about how we learn from each other, and the species-specific nature of this learning.

For example, Tomasello et al.’s much-referenced article, Cultural Learning (Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 1993, 16:3), distinguishes three levels of cultural learning in children (ie. “the social-learning processes whereby human children acquire the skills and conventions of those around them.”). They are imitative, instructed and collaborative learning. The article explains each mode in depth, and makes a comparison with autistic children (which feels very outdated), and then chimpanzees. My favourite idea in this article is the ‘cultural ratchet’. The basic premise is that chimpanzees develop tools – such as using sticks to collect and then eat ants from anthills – but that’s it. There might be small modifications, but there is no accumulation of knowledge and experience across generations of chimpanzees that progresses the sticks-down-holes idea to the giddy heights of Deliveroo. Humans, on the other hand, do, through the amazing power of culture.  As the authors explain:

“Many animal species live in complex social groups; only humans live in cultures. Cultures are most clearly distinguished from other forms of social organisation by the nature of their products – for example, material artifacts, social institutions, behavioural traditions, and languages. These cultural products share, among other things, the characteristic that they accumulate modifications over time. Once a practice is begun by some member or members of a culture others acquire it relatively faithfully, but then modify it as needed to deal with novel exigencies. The modified practice is then acquired by others, including progeny, who may in turn add their own modifications, and so on across generations. This accumulation of modifications across time is often called the “ratchet effect,” because each modification stays firmly in place in the group until further modifications are made.” (p.495)

More recent work in this field contests the premise that only humans have culture, but the ratchet effect and its role in human cultural learning still appears to hold water (check out these articles if you’d like to explore cumulative culture in more depth: Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture (Philosophical Transactions B, 2009 364/1528) and Human cumulative culture: a comparative perspective (Biological Review, 2013)). In the context of cultural anthropology, the ratchet effect is a very good thing, but in the world of economics and business development, it can be a distinct disadvantage. The Wikipedia page on the ratchet effect provides various examples of the negatives, such as: when governments create large bureaucratic organisations as a temporary measure in a time of crisis, then struggle to rein back in the expanded infrastructure;  or when more and more features are added to existing products to create a competitive edge, making it difficult to continue upping the ante (just think about the daft situation whereby the three-blade razor is outclassed by the four-blade razor, the pinnacle of shaving achievement and the ultimate… but wait, what’s that? FIVE blades you say?… etc, etc).

As luck would have it, I think both the positive and the negative interpretations of the ratchet effect can shed light on our work as museum and gallery educators. To start with the positive, I like the thought of being one link in a long chain of museum learning practice, having inherited a methodology and way of working from my predecessors, and then hopefully making my own contribution for whoever comes along next. On the one hand, I can see how our work has progressed over the decades, developing from the singular knowledge-acquisition-from-experts approach to the plurality of collaborative, audience-centric engagement and co-creation across a broad range of ages. And as the ratchet effect suggests, we can’t reverse this accumulated experience (although the ‘no interpretation’ brigade might try). On the other hand, some modes of museum learning practice feel stubbornly fixed. The format for interactive gallery-based talks and artist-led workshops (introduce premise, get inspiration from the collections, make, and reflect) has barely changed in the 15 years that I’ve been doing this. That’s a long time to spend poking the same stick down the same hole.

I can also relate to the negative version of the ratchet effect – I don’t think I’m alone in feeling hamstrung by a large programme that only ever gets bigger. Irrespective of budget cuts, the expectation is always one of growth – more people every year and more offers every year – and just try discontinuing a programme much loved by its loyal, shrinking audience, but otherwise well and truly past its sell-by date. The sensation is one of uncomfortable constriction – a bit like getting a blood pressure check. As the armband inflates, it gets tighter and tighter and tighter. I can feel my blood flow restricted and mild panic sets in that the machine is broken and it’s just going to keep inflating until my arm is squeezed clean off. In a similar vein (apologies), an overinflated learning programme restricts the blood flow of new ideas and innovative thinking. The bigger it gets, the less room there is for anything else. Resisting this pressure isn’t easy, but without pushback there is very little space to manoeuvre.  



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