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The Mosaic Theory of Natural Complexity

Georges Chapouthier

Chapter 3. From Nature to “Culture”

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1In the first two chapters we presented evidence of general principles involved in complexity as mosaics as seen in very different fields. It is interesting to observe that the two distinguishing features which are the pride of the human race, i.e. the brain and highly complex thought, are built on the same foundations as the rest of the living world – juxtaposition and integration.

2In the present chapter, I shall analyze the comparison in terms of nature and culture, with the brain referring to nature and the mind referring to culture. English-speakers often make the distinction between nature and nurture, but I prefer to use the continental word “culture”, for both humans and animals. The discussion in the previous chapter included phenomena of the mind such as language, music, drawing, philosophy and literature, and was already what I consider to be a cultural approach. The present chapter will address culture not simply as a human process but will also include cultural traits observed in the animal kingdom. However, to distinguish sophisticated human skills from often simple cultural traits in animals, the term “protoculture” will occasionally be used to designate certain cultural phenomena displayed by animals. I shall also argue that, contrary to certain traditional assumptions setting nature in opposition to culture, culture is actually the logical progression of natural processes. My argument will be backed by evidence to show that both nature and culture have the same basic processes, and that they are mosaic and triune processes.

Culture as opposed to nature

3Human beings, with the impressive activity of their brain, have developed sophisticated cultures. A culture can be defined as a sum of behavioural traits which cannot be transferred by purely genetic processes, but include transfers through imitation or teaching among individuals. Human cultures involve technical skills and language. One specific feature that is important for the development of human societies and that should be noted here is that humans can record their knowledge and the pool of knowledge of a given generation is therefore greater than it was for the previous generation; human knowledge is thus cumulative and increases exponentially with time. While some animals can teach certain cultural phenomena to their offspring, this is not comparable to the passing on and vast increase in knowledge from generation to generation for the human species. This increase is in the time context of history and is specific to the human species. Our prehistoric ancestors sapiens sapiens may have had the same exceptional brain activity as modern humans, but did not develop computers or sophisticated surgery. Similarly, feral children raised by animals, i.e. outside the framework of modern civilization, would not develop traits of modern human culture such as language or sophisticated technical skills.

4Since prehistoric times, humans have used their cultural abilities as part of the Darwinian “struggle for life” to defend themselves against their environment, i.e. being opposed to nature. Many authors have developed arguments based on human) culture being opposed to nature. In prehistoric times, stones were shaped to cut plants and kill animals which are all part of nature. Modern agricultural tools and hunting weapons can be seen as an extension of these stones. The idea that emerged was that key characteristics of human society were cultural and in opposition to plants and animals, in opposition to all other living species – nature – and through evolution the human species had to fight for survival. Culture was thus a human prerogative and opposed to the natural environment. As human beings also had obvious animal traits (breathing, eating and reproducing), these traits were linked to nature and considered animal-like or bestial, set apart from the purely human status of culture. What humans had in common with animals (the natural side) was diametrically opposed to what was specific to humans (their cultural heritage). Humans were heroes of culture fighting and conquering untamed nature, not only in the animals around them, but also in their own animal nature.

5The ecological and ethical repercussions of this anti-nature culture have been underlined by both political ecologists (focusing on the gradual destruction of the Earth and its natural biotopes, including the oceans) and animal rights advocates (speaking out against the disastrous way humans treat and cause suffering to our animal cousins). The anti-nature stance prevails in the western world with ideas developed by Descartes and his school, such as the unfortunate Malebranche who claimed that only humans had a soul and that animals were merely machines. The favoured position of humans then easily went from disregard for animals to complete and brutal domination of the natural environment, as chosen by the western civilization in the past century, polluting and damaging the earth.

Culture as part of nature

6A closer examination will show, however, that culture is not necessarily set in opposition to nature and does not necessarily lead to such a disastrous anti-ecological position. Culture can also arise from nature, and in many fields culture is an extension or enhancement of activity in nature. This can be seen in both human cultures and more recent observations of animal cultures.

7Let us start with human beings. It can be seen that many technical skills developed by humans are actually extensions of abilities already present in physical organs. Agricultural tools (scythes, sickles and axes) or weapons such as clubs and spears are extensions of what can be done, less successfully, with hands and arms. With the development of writing and painting, humans were able to extend memory beyond its natural limits. Now computers simulate and extend the performance of the human brain; loudspeakers extend the power of the human voice.

  • 73 Morris 1967.

8In nature we are born as “naked apes” to quote the title of the famous book73 by Desmond Morris. The human body looks like the foetus of an ape, with a larger head, big eyes and a mostly naked body (except for some hair on the head, sparse body hair and whiskers for males). Nature gave us the status of a naked ape, but this was not sufficient for the human mind. Humans devised and crafted tools, including blades for knives and razors, to extend and/or enhance what nature produced, e.g. to cut hair and shave whiskers and even body hair. Such cultural behaviour is designed to extend our natural traits.

Animal (proto)cultures

  • 74 Chapouthier 2009b.
  • 75 Chapouthier 2009b.
  • 76 Lestel 2001.
  • 77 Simondon 2008.

9Several cultural traits have been observed in animals74, which means that the concepts of culture and cultural traits cannot be considered as solely human, but have their roots in the animal kingdom. As such animal cultures are far removed from the complexity of human cultures (as stated above) I have chosen to use the term “protocultures75”, even though some specialists disagree with the term76. The philosopher Gilbert Simondon77 considers that while animal cultures exist, they cannot progress as much as human cultures because there has been no merging with technical thought. Simondon’s position is therefore in line with my concept of animal cultures as protocultures.

  • 78 Imanishi2002.

10The first report of animal (proto)culture dates back to 1952, in Japan, and Kinji Imanishi. On the island of Koshima, scientists a fed troop of macaque monkeys, giving them sweet potatoes on the beach. The potatoes were therefore covered in sand, so a young female got the idea of washing them to avoid biting on the grit. Over the years, this behaviour pattern was gradually adopted by all members of the troop and then passed on to the next generation78.

  • 79 Lestel 2001.

11Since this initial discovery, a number of cultural traits have been studied in animals, mostly mammals and birds79. Animals can use tools, cognitive rules, communication and language, and can display forms of moral behaviour and aesthetic choices

12There are many examples of animals using tools: thrushes use “anvils” to break snail shells; woodpeckers have their anvils to break nuts; Galapagos chaffinches use cactus thorns to fish insects out of holes in cactus plants; one Australian bird colours its breast with grass to attract the females. Chimpanzees use twigs to extract termites from a termite mound: when the termite bites the twig and is attached to it, the chimpanzee removes the twig to eat the insect. Chimpanzees can also break nuts on stone anvils using a special technique, and observations of a chimpanzee population have shown that the technique is passed on from parents to offspring. Chimpanzees even invent “metatools” (tools used to make another tool), e.g. if a stone used as an anvil is unsteady, a chimpanzee can look for other stones to wedge under the first stone. Even crocodiles have been shown to position twigs on their snout to catch birds looking for twigs for their nest. Nest building is a good example of many animals, in particular birds and mammals, using tools; and social insects, e.g. ants in fungal growth on leaf-mould, use tools.

  • 80 Alexinsky & Chapouthier 1978.

13Cognitive rules have been reported in practice by many species, ranging from vertebrates to molluscs, such as the octopus family. Rats have been trained to master a simple rule such as: “I should match a box where I can find water with a similar box that I have seen just before”80. Dolphins can learn movements by following instructions given by humans. Many animals can grasp the concept of numbers and count up to six or seven. Pigeons have been reported to understand the idea of a forest or source of water. They have to pick a key to obtain food only where on a slide is presented, for example, a stretch of water, whether it is a sea, a pool or a river. If they pick the key when is displayed a slide with no stretch of water, they will not receive any food for this slide. Pigeons learn very well to pick only with the proper slide.

14The jay can match geometrical shapes in a logical sequence, as in IQ tests. The great spotted woodpecker can anticipate the effects of the law of gravity, knowing when an object is about to fall. The American scientist Irene Pepperberg reported impressive behaviour by parrots, observing that they can sort objects according to colour and/or shape, according to whether they are similar or different. Let us finish with a social rule: the proscription of incestuous behaviour is not specific to humans but common, at least, among all primates.

15Communication between animals can be extremely sophisticated, with many different types of communications: olfactory, electric (in water environments), acoustic, visual and tactile. Well known examples of acoustic communication are found with birds and whales. Reports have shown that certain birds can teach a certain way of singing to their offspring, creating song “dialects” and producing a cultural trait. Ethologists distinguish language from communication. Communication, even in the most sophisticated bird songs, conveys information that always refers to the present in the immediate environment of the animal communicating, e.g. the bird singing. Expressed as words, it may mean “This is my territory” or “I’m hungry” or “I want to mate” or “Beware! Danger!” Warning or danger signals can sometimes be understood by animals of another species; a bird may sound a warning when noticing birds of prey, and the entire forest may fall silent, suggesting that other birds and species have understood the message. But there is no information referring to anything that is no longer present in the immediate environment; there is no information referring to a past situation. However, language for ethologists, can communicate references to the past, to events no longer in the environment of the animal communicating.

16Very simple language has been reported in bees. A bee which has found a food supply goes back to the hive and, by a characteristic dance, is able to communicate to other bees the direction and the distance to the food source. This is basic language with few “words” and no grammar. Humans can teach more complicated languages to chimpanzees and gorillas, but as they do not have the oral skills required for human speech, the languages used are either sign language as used for deaf mutes or arbitrary pictorial expressions on a computer screen, e.g. a black square for an apple and a red triangle for a banana. In such cases, apes can master a few hundred words and simple grammar rules and may sometimes teach them to their offspring. No evidence has been found of the use of similar languages by apes in the wild; such simple language communication has only been acquired through contact with humans. It may also be noted that human children do no acquire language spontaneously if not in contact with humans. Children raised by animals do not learn to speak

17Interesting studies of dogs show that while they obviously cannot speak, they can, to a certain extent, understand human language, with some able to distinguish the names of more than one hundred different objects. Dogs were trained to distinguish different objects, e.g. a bone and a toy, and trained to act according to different verbal orders such as: “Get the bone” and “Sit next to the bone” or “Get the toy” and “Sit next to the toy,” showing that the dog discriminated between an object (noun) and an action (verb).

Proto-morals and proto-aesthetics

18All animals live in societies or families, the family being the basic form of social organization, and they need to follow social rules that forbid certain acts which would disturb the harmonious functioning of the group. Members of a given group cannot fight if the fight exposes the group to danger from predators; offspring have to obey their parents. Such social rules are described here using the term proto-morals.

19Proto-morals are very general rules and can also be found in human communities. Two examples will be given. All animals raising their offspring need to protect their young. This is a very general Darwinian rule, and can be seen, for example, with humans who refuse to tolerate torture and consider that it is more reprehensible to torture a child than an adult. A less general rule is the avoidance of incest by all primates. Cats and mice mate with directly related members of their group, but apes avoid incest. Human morals refusing incest go back to our identity as primates, as cousins to apes.

  • 81 De Waal 1989; De Waal 2006.

20Frans De Waal studied captive populations of chimpanzees81 and described examples of proto-morals. He observed behaviour patterns displaying sympathy, attachment, care for the young, help for disabled subjects, punishment, negotiation, cooperation and reconciliation, all behavioural phenomena that we could describe as morals. “Forgiving, remarks De Waal, is not… a mysterious and sublime idea that we owe to several millenniums of Judeo-Christianity. The mere fact that monkeys, apes and men all show reconciliation behaviour means that forgiving is probably more than thirty millions years old and that it is earlier than the separation which took place in the evolution of primates”.

  • 82 Kreutzer and Aebischer 2015.

21Aesthetic preferences82 are usually based on the physical characteristics of the sexual partner. If the partner is red and yellow, the animal will tend to prefer red and yellow. In human society, certain aesthetic choices could be described as sexual if gauged according to the number of naked bodies in paintings and sculptures.

22Most animals prefer bright primary colours, symmetrical lines and curves, and a tune or beat when they sing (e.g. the singing of birds and whales). Kinaesthetic similarities can be observed in dances by humans and birds. Drawings by a chimpanzee are similar to drawings by a three-year-old child: in the centre of the page, with bright colours and continuous rather than broken lines. This suggests that similar aesthetic preferences can be found across the animal kingdom.

A philosophical expression of the relationship between nature and culture

  • 83 Smajs 2008.
  • 84 Smajs 2008: 144.
  • 85 Smajs 2008: 67.
  • 86 Smajs 2008: 145.
  • 87 Smajs 2008: 196.
  • 88 Langaney 1991.

23One of the most interesting philosophical approaches here is the work of the Czech philosopher Josef Smajs83 who considers that there are two different ontic orders, or two different ontic layers: natural and cultural. Smajs speaks (somewhat ambiguously) of orderliness: “cultural orderliness is an orderliness with a different organization than that of nature84”. While culture evolved from nature, it has become, at least in human culture, anti-nature, as discussed above: “The current antinatural culture irreversibly destroys those natural forms on which it depends85”. There is a human “cultural evolution against the old, evolutionary-constituted structures of animate and inanimate nature86”. Smajs believes that to counter the dangerous move by humans against nature (one of the central topics of modern political ecology movements), we must achieve a new “biophilous culture”. “A real planetary solution […] would be based on the absolute priority of a sustainable habitability of the Earth for the first time, namely on a biophilous cultural strategy87”. By focusing on the animal side of humans, we could, to quote the French geneticist André Langaney, “be animals and proud of it88”. If we retrieved our natural ontic layer as animals, we would probably adopt the biophilous attitude making it possible to transform the earth into a sustainably habitable planet.

Nature and culture against entropy

  • 89 Matras & Chapouthier 1984.
  • 90 Smajs 2008: 81.
  • 91 Smajs 2008: 109.
  • 92 Kovàc 2015.
  • 93 Kovàc 2015: 13.
  • 94 Kovàc 2015: 20.

24The second law of thermodynamics says that all material systems tend to reach a poor state of energy called maximum entropy. Expressed differently if not completely accurately89, it could be said that all material systems tend to maximum disorder. But the work of modern scientists in the field of thermodynamics, names such as Ilya Prigogine and Jacques Tonnelat (see chapter 1), shows that there are some remarkable exceptions to this general law. When a system can accumulate matter and energy locally, in situations far from energetic equilibrium (open non-equilibrium situations known as “dissipative structures”), this can reverse the entropic path and reach a decreased entropic, or negentropic, state. “The growth of natural orderliness under normal conditions is possible only in open non-equilibrium systems, in so-called dissipative structures”, as observed by Smajs90. This is the distinctive case of living systems and organisms: “Evolution (…) proceeds ‘against the current’, against the tendency toward general decomposition91”. The Slovakian philosopher Ladislav Kovàc92 sees the negentropic path leading to a continuum between non-life and life. From this point of view, the very appearance of life is a correlate of the second law of thermodynamics according to which living structures, locally, in non-equilibrium situations, are able “not only to maintain their onticity but also to grow in size, to break up to give rise to self-similar structures93”. Darwinian theory in the broadest sense can now be seen as the reverse side of the second law of thermodynamics: permanently opening towards locally non-entropic oriented structures, “a dynamic process of generation of structures and of massive self-organization94.” Such oriented evolution leads to more complex structures.

  • 95 Schacter 2001.

25Culture has taken over from nature. While within non-equilibrium situations, negentropic paths tend to oppose the general (entropic) path of the universe, and while biology may appear as a rebellion against the second law of thermodynamics, then culture does the same at an intellectual or cognitive level. As previously stated, culture tends to be in opposition to nature, and we expanded on this idea following work by Smajs (cited above). This tendency of human culture and its practical, social and ecological effects obviously cannot be ignored. Yet when seen from the entropic point of view as discussed here, the situation appears to be quite different, or even the opposite, for culture enhances, in its own way, biological endeavours initiated by nature. Culture is an extension of nature. Tools re-used to enhance the physical abilities of the body. Communication and language enhance interactions, chemical or other biological phenomena which have always existed. Cognitive rules and declarative memories95 enhance the abilities of animals to be autonomous and thus enhance the function of basic procedural memories (or unconscious habits) first developed in lower organisms. Social communities with social and moral rules make it possible for groups of organism to behave consistently and for biological systems to reach higher levels of organization or complexity, with greater autonomy. Aesthetic choices too can increase an animal’s ability to choose between different behaviour patterns and have greater autonomy.

26Living beings follow a negentropic pathway, both naturally and culturally, throughout their life. They may seem to rebel against or oppose general laws of nature such as the ubiquitous second law of thermodynamics, but this is just a façade of rebellion. As Prigogine and Tonnelat have shown, this negentropic pathway can be explained by a local accumulation of matter and energy by dissipative structures and this remains consistent with the general functioning of the universe. Once living beings die, they stop accumulating matter and energy, and as inert objects then return to entropic evolution.

27This original situation of biological nature and culture may explain why both processes seem to function the same way. Here we find a thermodynamic correlate of what was stated earlier, i.e. that the complexity of living beings at both natural and cultural levels is built as mosaic structures, the mosaic architecture of complexity fitting both the natural and cultural processes underlying living organisms.

Cultural traits as mosaics

28The examples presented have shown that cultural traits are not solely the prerogative of mankind, and that some can be observed in the often complex behaviour of (other) animals. Cultural traits displayed by animals are usually simpler than cultural traits developed by humans, e.g. language, complex machines, works of art and moral treatises, hence the use of the concept of proto-culture to describe cultural traits for animals.

29These include, as mentioned above, the use of tools, cognitive rules, communication and language, proto-morals and proto-aesthetics. While an in-depth analysis of the construction of these behavioural traits cannot be undertaken when investigating animals (as it could for human language), it can be stated that all and any of these traits are the result of the juxtaposition and integration of basic segments of behaviour. Breaking a nut, for example, requires the juxtaposition of several behavioural units or actions as part of an integrated movement designed to perform the task successfully. Similarly, mastering cognitive rules, communication and language (e.g. human language) is the result of the juxtaposition and integration of cognitive elements leading to an efficient sequence. The same is true for the cognitive and/or behavioural segments needed to express (proto)moral rules and (proto)aesthetic choices. In all such (proto)cultural situations for animals (as is the case for cultural traits described above for humans, and as has been shown with the example of human speech constructing of a meaningful sentence), the complete action by the animal accomplishing cultural behaviour requires the juxtaposition and final integration of elementary behavioural and/or cognitive segments.

Partial conclusion

30The first two chapters presented evidence of the mosaic model applied to the anatomy of the brain (a natural element) and to components of the mind (memory, consciousness, language, literature, and philosophy), all elements related to culture. The present chapter has focused on nature and culture. Despite the view of nature being diametrically opposed to human culture, they have been seen to be a continuum, with culture extending what nature had started. It is therefore not surprising that the same processes seen with the mosaic construction of complexity can be found in both fields. This supports the hypothesis that these same rules can apply in different areas of the cosmos. Though, technically, nature and culture cannot be considered one as microcosm, the other as macrocosm, they still belong to two very different ontic levels, thus extending the Aristotelian belief in the universality of biological processes to these ontic levels, with complexity of culture being built according to the same processes as apply to complexity in living organisms.


73 Morris 1967.

74 Chapouthier 2009b.

75 Chapouthier 2009b.

76 Lestel 2001.

77 Simondon 2008.

78 Imanishi2002.

79 Lestel 2001.

80 Alexinsky & Chapouthier 1978.

81 De Waal 1989; De Waal 2006.

82 Kreutzer and Aebischer 2015.

83 Smajs 2008.

84 Smajs 2008: 144.

85 Smajs 2008: 67.

86 Smajs 2008: 145.

87 Smajs 2008: 196.

88 Langaney 1991.

89 Matras & Chapouthier 1984.

90 Smajs 2008: 81.

91 Smajs 2008: 109.

92 Kovàc 2015.

93 Kovàc 2015: 13.

94 Kovàc 2015: 20.

95 Schacter 2001.

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