The Vine and the Drainpipe


The other day, Memorial Day in fact, I took a break from struggling with the bamboo that endlessly threatens to take over the entire yard, and tried to unwrap a vine which had encircled the drainpipe twenty or more times as it climbed up its length. What did the vine think the drain pipe was? Sure, the vine thinks no more then the distribution of auxin receptors inside its cells will allow,but was it evolved to climb up drainpipes?  Was it making use of adaptations to some primordial forest to get that sweet sun exposure and maybe even gutter water that the drainpipe affords?   Or perhaps the generation time of vines is short enough that it is in fact adapted to drainpipes specifically, and the particular ecology of suburban yards.

Is that what culture is? The drainpipe that supports our weak vine as it, spiraling, grows?



Take a small amount of soil and add it to a jar filled with water. Stir until the soil is suspended, and then leave it for a few hours. The sand, silt, and clay of the soil will form distinct layers at the bottom of the glass, with the organic components floating at the top.

Perhaps that is all much of what we call culture is, just the passive settling of objects of common characteristics into one stratum or location or another.


Chimps in some groups throw stones as weapons, chimps in other groups don’t. Some use stones to break nuts, others don’t. One group of lions learned how to hunt young elephants- normally quite dangerous to lions- by specifically targeting them late at night near a particular watering hole, and working in a coordinated and silent group so as not to alert the adult elephants. There is disagreement about how innate the behavior of hawks and kites who spread bush fires to smoke out prey is-whether it is passed from one hawk to another- or how specific to one community of humpback whales the “bubble net” hunting technique (see below), really is.

Undoubtedly, culture is somewhat like all of those things, though so much of what we call culture has none of the immediate benefits of a baleen full of herring.


There is a fungus that when inhaled by a specific species of ant, directs the ant to climb up a tree, where the fungus erupts from the ant’s head, and sends out more spores to find more ants to control.

Perhaps that is what culture is.

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