Culture is often considered what distinguishes humans from animals.   Many psychologists assume that while humans live meaningfully in shared cultures developed and maintained in collaboration, animals move instinctively and alone in environments they cannot interpret in causal or mental terms. So, while cultural psychologists such as Bruner (1990) consider human cognition as a capacity formed by culture in early childhood, chimpanzee cognition is perceived as determined by genetic rather than cultural factors.

In the past decades, however, animal culture has become subject for empirical biological research. Biologists with a cultural approach to animal behavior have a different view of animal life and its kinship with that of humans. They give names to individual animals under study and use methods similar to those of ethnography for collecting data about how social animals such as dolphins, killer whales, elephants and chimpanzees live together in close and organized groups.

Animal habits, games, the use of tools and forms of cooperation are charted, and individual animal personalities are portrayed. These scientists study how animals learn from each other — how ways of life are transmitted socially and not just genetically. Rather than revealing animal-like traits in humans, as early sociobiologists did, biologists now reveal humanlike traits in animals such as the great apes. The primatologist Frans de Waal emphasizes why our close evolutionary kinship with the other great apes makes it logical to employ description of apes in human terms and to use it as a powerful research tool. Hence culture, a capacity many psychologists consider uniquely human, is claimed by biologists to be studied in animals.