While animals may not always seem to have sophisticated medical procedures, many species have the equivalent of medical treatments for afflictions. Some chimpanzees regularly rub down their fur with leaves that have been shown to have anti-parasitic properties, and many primates will line their bedding with plant materials that are known to contain natural pesticides. This appears to be a learned behavior. (See various papers by Eloy Rodriguez at Cornell University.)

The main stumbling block for medicinal information and technique being incorporated into a culture is language. How does one convey the idea that rubbing this leaf on a sore will make it feel better if there is no language? One can imagine that once discovered, a treatment for wounds that seems to help the healing process will survive and be passed down to the next generation through stories and legends, or by a mother simply showing the offspring. Without such things, information is lost from one generation to the next. There is no way to “hard-code” that kind of information into the genetics of the species, so instead of a gene for medicinal information, an idea is handed down, a thought is transferred, a piece of useful information is given to the next generation — a meme develops. (Dr. Richard Dawkins coined this word in The Selfish Gene to capture the idea that information can improve the success of a species and improve its fitness by helping to protect the injured from certain death for example.)

So, will an injured lion get an infection and die for lack of treatment? Yes, possibly it will. Will the injured primate receive care and attention from members of its own family or troop? Yes, likely it will. And it will likely be treatments that have proven useful over many generations. One can readily see that those individual groups with the “story telling gene,” as Mr. Quinn puts it, are likely to survive and reproduce preferentially to those that do not. This is evolution by natural selection.

NOTE: At the request of Daniel Quinn, this question was answered by Dr. Alan Thornhill.

DATE: 20 Apr 1997
UPDATE: 03 Jan 2002
ID: 156