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Professor Galef, a McMaster University psychologist, has work he probably should be doing -- scientific manuscripts to review, papers to write, the many duties of an academic elder statesman.

But what's unusual is not that this 63-year-old scientist and high-art aficionado would waste his time on this kind of television, in a windowless basement room four floors below his university office in Hamilton. It is that the actors in this take on Desperate Housewives are all birds -- gawky, dull-brown Japanese quail, to be exact.

"Any time, day or night, you put mature adults together . . . they're ready to perform," Prof. Galef told me.

As actors go, they're pretty reliable.

For the quail, of course, it's not acting. Their screen appearances -- carefully videotaped ahead of time in specially constructed cages in Prof. Galef's basement laboratory -- are slices of real life that show something surprising about how female quail choose their mates: They copy each other's choices.

When choosing between two males confined to opposite ends of her cage, the quail in this tape -- call her Doris -- repeatedly sidles up to Sid, looking longingly into his eyes. Then, in a heart-breaking instant, it is over: Doris spots another female that has been placed in the compartment of the male she did not choose. To her, the male in the company of the other female suddenly seems sexier. She marches over. Sid is history.

Simply put, Prof. Galef's quail won't follow their hearts when they can follow other quail. In a hardwired world where most animals appear genetically programmed to choose the best, brightest or strongest mates, these quail seem different: They prefer lessons of love to be passed to them not by their DNA but by their peers. They possess the trick of learning preferences and other behaviours from one another.

This may seem like an awfully trivial matter to divert an emeritus professor of psychology, but it is the heart of a passionate international dispute about whether animals have culture.

"As an issue, it has just gone berserk," Prof. Galef says. "People for so long have been concerned with the animal and its physical environment. Now, the relationship between an animal's behaviour and its social environment has come very much to the fore."

Culture is widely considered to be exclusively human. Although we share 95 per cent of our DNA with apes, non-genetic culture is touted as the likely engine for our ride out of the jungle. It is said to have freed people from their underlying biology, leading to the myriad choices that make us human -- selections of mates and careers, ethics and religions, clothes, music or pop-idol heartthrobs.

Animals can learn clever tricks, but most scientists assume the things animals do to survive or mate are strictly coded for in their genes; the careful scripting helps animals avoid mistakes that could cost them their future. Now, the behaviour of creatures such as Prof. Galef's quail has some scientists rethinking this view.

Animals that look to other animals when making important choices, such as selecting a mate, are not following the usual dictates of biology. Instead, they may be exhibiting something akin to culture. And if animals have culture, then a kind of consciousness might not be far behind; if animals have culture, the gulf between us and them might be much smaller than we long presumed.

"It is seen as a sort of steppingstone to humanness," explains Kevin Laland, a psychologist at the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Jeff Galef is a slight, puckishly energetic scientist with a grey goatee and bitten-down nails. Although he doesn't look it, he is retired and putting the finishing touches on the more than 35 years he has spent studying how animals learn from their fellow animals.

In the 1970s, Prof. Galef demonstrated that rats recognize food and avoid poisons by paying attention to chemical cues in the breath of their cage mates, or in the milk of their mothers. It was a breakthrough, because it helped to show that animals could learn not only by genetic predisposition and from individual experience, but at least in some sense from the experiences of others.

Since then, he has consolidated his position on the frontier of science, conducting animal social-learning studies on everything from Mongolian gerbils to vampire bats. With Cecilia Heyes, he co-edited one of the most widely cited texts on the subject, Social Learning in Animals: The Roots of Culture.

"Jeff is kind of like the father figure to the field," Prof. Laland says. "He made people think of this as an important topic, and he introduced experimental rigour into a field which had previously been quite wishy-washy."

It isn't what Prof. Galef first set out to do. Born and raised in Manhattan, he is the son of a frustrated sculptor who was forced to decline a promising artistic career to work in the family import-export business, then died in a plane crash when his son was 17. Affected by his father's true passion, the future Prof. Galef began studying to be a forensic art historian, the kind of high-culture gumshoe who authenticates artworks and uncovers forgeries. Unfortunately, he found he hated chemistry, so he changed course. He went into experimental psychology and then, during graduate school, switched again, to evolutionary psychology.

After his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he accepted a position at McMaster in 1968. But he never set aside his fondness for human culture.

"Art has always been a big part of my life," says Prof. Galef, who is a member of the board of directors for the McMaster Art Gallery and himself a collector of European paintings. "I figure I've seen more of the world than Captain Cook. I've heard more music than Louis XIV, who devoted a third of the GNP of France to it. I've seen more art than the Medicis. It's a wonderful time to be alive."

Animal culture was a contentious idea long before Prof. Galef arrived on the scene. The early grist for the debate emerged in the 1950s.

Small, chickadee-like birds called blue tits were irking British homemakers by, apparently, learning from one another how to peck through the foil bottle caps on door-stoop-delivered milk bottles and skim off the cream. Two biologists saw a pattern in the complaints and traced the origin of the bottle-opening habit to one place, a village in Southampton.

Then, primatologists studying a troupe of macaque monkeys on the Japanese island of Koshima reported a peculiar food-washing habit that was spreading among their study population.

For years, locals had been feeding the monkeys by scattering sweet potatoes on the beach. One day, a crafty, two-year-old female named Imo began wading into the sea and rinsing the sand from her potatoes. Within nine years, all the monkeys were washing their food. They still do, to this day.

Soon, evidence of culture in animals was being reported all over the place. Birds of the same species were found singing in local dialects. Minnows and guppies were discovered following each other to find the best escape routes or the fastest ways to a meal.

In New Zealand, psychologists Gain Hunt and Russell Gray found that crows on the remote Pacific islands of New Caledonia seemed to learn tool-making skills from other crows: They could snip special shapes out of durable leaves to use for hunting insects, and copy the latest, most effective leaf-cut designs from one another.

In two landmark papers, in the prestigious journals Nature and Science, a group of researchers in Africa and another in Borneo announced that chimpanzees and orangutans had complex cultures, sharing a vast array of habits and traditions, from the crafting of dolls out of bundles of leaves to making thin twig "fishing rods" to scoop ants out of holes, as well as a variety of sex tricks.

"It starts to add up to a culture story," says Carel van Schaik, the University of Indiana anthropologist who headed the orangutan work.

The journal articles sparked news stories and editorials in both The New York Times and The Times of London, warning that the distinction between apes and people was becoming perhaps uncomfortably fuzzy.

Closer to home, Canadian whale biologist Hal Whitehead published his arguments that whales and dolphins also have cultures that seem almost human. Many whale social groups share everything from a language of whistles and clicks to complex hunting skills. For instance, culture could explain how humpback whales learn to use tail slaps and blow bubble-ring "nets" to trap food, or how Argentine killer whales teach their young to snatch seals from shoreline seal colonies by violently beaching themselves.

"I think the mounting evidence has weakened the Cartesian divide between human culture and animal culture in so many ways," Prof. Whitehead says from his Dalhousie University office. "People who look at these barriers between us and non-human animals are finding they don't hold up."

From the point of view of evolutionary biology, few of these behaviours make obvious sense.

Only the genes that help animals survive and mate are supposed to win in the great Darwinian lottery. Genes for behaviour are no exception. Culture, on the other hand, seems so genetically superfluous. So human.

Over the past century, arguments have waxed and waned about whether human behaviour is more influenced by a person's genes (nature) or by experience (nurture). From the beginning of the debate, culture figured prominently. Culture could compel people to do things no self-respecting gene would recommend -- things such as taking an oath of celibacy to join the priesthood.

Lately, the human nature-nurture dispute has cooled considerably. Both sides now frequently agree to meet in the middle -- researchers acknowledge that genetic makeup is crucial, but experience acts to switch on or off many of the genes that shape behaviour.

On the subject of animals, however, the debate is really just beginning. A growing group of scientists now believes that the existence of culture in animals may change the way we think of evolution itself.

Culture may affect the way animals act in surprising and unanticipated ways. Like the celibate priests, animals may be compelled by culture to do things contrary to their nature, things that disobey their genetic instructions. It's behaviour that can't be predicted by asking -- as most biologists currently do -- whether an activity helps animals make their way in the world.

Culture can affect where animals choose to live or with whom they choose to mate -- decisions that, in turn, direct the course of evolution for the underlying genes.

Evolutionary biologists who think only in terms of the survival and inheritance of DNA molecules may be missing a whole other force of change.

"The role of these things has been under-explored," says Lee Dugatkin, a professor of biology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky who is the author of The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond the Gene.

"There are two concurrent forces going on here. There's genetic evolution and, in addition to that, there are aspects of cultural evolution that go above and beyond what can be explained through the standard evolutionary approach."

Prof. Laland explains, "What starts to count is history, what individuals around you are doing. Culture and cultural evolution are a separate domain from genetic evolution. Separate, but not separate in that they are not completely independent, and the processes interact. When cultural traits spread through a population, they frequently modify the selection pressures acting back on the genes."

It's complicated, but it helps to explain the groundbreaking thinking of Profs. Laland and Dugatkin and other beneficiaries of Prof. Galef's social-learning work.

Both Prof. Laland and Prof. Dugatkin have shown experimentally that tiny aquarium guppies not only learn socially, but that they can be "tricked by culture" to do things their genes would warn against doing, such as taking the long route instead of a short one to food or choosing a substandard mate. Culturally learned habits, therefore, can actually set guppies back, temporarily, in the genetic evolutionary race.

It is this kind of thinking that some believe is poised to change the study of evolutionary biology in important ways. "I would love to believe it is the next big thing," Prof. Laland says. "It's certainly a big thing, whether or not it's the big thing."

And yet, the putative father of animal social-learning science, Prof. Galef himself, isn't buying it. He seems almost gleeful at the seeming paradox.

"Culture in animals? Cumulative culture? No," he says. "I certainly haven't seen any evidence for it."

A lot of scientists treat the word culture too glibly, he says. Sure, social learning -- of the kind Prof. Galef has demonstrated in rats, quail and other creatures -- can bring about behavioural "traditions" in animals.

But culture, human-like culture, is different. While animals may learn from other animals, he says, only humans actively teach one another. Some animals may be capable of building a better mousetrap, but humans are the only species that builds it using the accumulated technology of previous mousetrap designs.

More often than not, Prof. Galef says, shared behaviours that researchers say shows culture in animals could be explained in other ways. Better evidence is needed, he says.

"I just have difficulty believing that it's going to turn out that there really is no meaningful distinction between the guys that built the space shuttle and the chimps who managed to crack nuts with a rock. It's not just a quantitative difference; it's just different. We are doing something that the damn chimps just cannot do."

What he describes as caution, however, other scientists see as unwarranted rebuke, and it's caused a reaction. Not long ago, Prof. Galef was notably excluded from the invitation list of a major international conference on mammalian social learning in London.

"I thought it was quite extraordinary," Prof. Laland says. "He would have been the first name down on virtually everybody's list. But I think if you're going to invite Jeff along, then you know there's going to be a certain tone to the meeting.

"There are those who feel that sometimes he is so critical that it puts people off from joining the field. I feel that was the concern of the organizers of that meeting. I think they were wrong to draw that conclusion."

Primatologists, such as those who put together the London conference, are the most frequently rankled by Prof. Galef's ready skepticism, but so is Dalhousie's Prof. Whitehead. "I think it's hurtful," he says. "There is an attitude out there that if you cannot do the experimental approach, then the science isn't worth doing. I utterly reject that. Because then you are throwing away a lot of the most interesting things in nature."

Back in Prof. Galef's office, four floors above his small subterranean lab, the reigning champion and principal naysayer of animal social learning is rocking back in his chair. Around him, crammed bookshelves hold volumes of social-learning texts and scores of biographies of Charles Darwin. Darwin, the architect of the theory of evolution by natural selection, is Prof. Galef's hero.

Large stacks of articles and papers are neatly arranged on the filing cabinet and on a crowded corner of the desk. The shelves are adorned with his wildlife photographs along with a few pictures of his wife, Mertice Clark, an adjunct professor in the department, with whom Prof Galef has often collaborated.

Prof. Galef shrugs, and smiles. He is amused that his doubts about animal culture have caused such a stir. The mischief is mostly unintentional, he says.

He says the reason for his skepticism is not a belief in the primacy of the human culture he so enjoys, nor even his insistence that genes will always have the last word. The reason is simply his service to good science.

The claim that animals have culture is not to be made lightly. It is a notion in need of scientific evidence that is as compelling and solid as the idea itself is profound. That evidence is still missing, he says.

"Of course, I fully expect to be proved wrong," he adds, drawing himself up to his desk. "The point is to convince people that you need more. That's hard. And to do it while everybody is deciding, 'Oh God, there's that guy, make him go away,' that's tougher still.

"I want us to know things, the way we know hydrogen and oxygen make water. If this is ever going to be a real science, what we mean by knowing things has to be much more solid than it is today. . . . If the intellectual pressure is there, then the means for answering these questions may be found."

Meanwhile, behind the scenes of Prof. Galef's quail-TV drama, the quietly clucking birds have no idea that their romantic perturbations have stirred a worldwide debate that divides contemporary biologists.

Indeed, within a very few minutes, the whole feathery affair of Doris and Sid seems a distant memory to these pea-brained birds. She, of course, has moved on to better things, remaking her image of the model mate. He, meanwhile, has mended his broken heart in a moment, consoled by the notion that there are plenty of quail in the coop.

The science of animal behaviour may have been unsettled by their little melodrama, but for the quail, it's nothing to get ruffled about.

Peter Christie is a science writer and editor living in Kingston.

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