The "Nature versus Nurture" debate just got more complicated. (Well, even more complicated than the original "If you really think you can reduce all of biology to such a simplistic division you're missing pretty much every point involved" complication.) Birds have been observed reconstructing cultural information in complete isolation, meaning that culture can be genetically encoded.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientists isolated a Zebra Finch, preventing it from learning the songs of its parents (and probably pissing off a bunch of PETA activists who genuinely don't have anything better to do). These finches are known to learn their song from elder male relatives, which is why the scientists were surprised to see the same songs emerge from a colony of these utterly isolated birds.
They didn't get it right immediately. The first isolated bird, cut off from its culture, emitted a cacophonous screeching about as melodious as nails being dragged down a pieces of broken blackboard which were, in turn, being dragged down an even larger blackboard. It even tried to teach its kids the same, but they obviously thought "that sucks" (in bird) and made a few improvements. After four generations, the original finch songs reappeared, meaning that either
a) Cultural information can be genetically encoded or
b) Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has embarrassingly bad sound insulation.
We're going to assume a) for now.
The implications are enormous: the encoded information wasn't immediately available like some kind of genetic database, but as the baby birds learned and improved what they saw they were all along being guided by built-in information. At every point, if you'll forgive the outrageous anthropomorphization, they "thought" they were working it out for themselves while dancing to the genetic tune. That's the kind of thing that would make you think very seriously about free will.
Even better, imagine the interactions of such genetically-tuned tendencies with a world full of things survival never had to deal with. The evolutionary importance of mating songs can't be overstated, so such information being backed up in every single cell is understandable. But what about innate tendencies like wanting to be popular or successful, interacting with technologies which can send your image far further than our cave-dwelling originators could ever imagine?
That could lead to people doing the stupidest, most self-destructive things just for the chance of a few minutes of fame and, oh, hang on. YouTube and Reality TV just made a lot more sense to us. And that's scary.
Posted by Luke McKinney.
Culture may be encoded in DNA http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/05/songbirdculture/