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The Evolution of Culture

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Abstract: Both demographically and ecologically, humans are a remarkably successful species. This success is often attributed to our capacity for culture. But how did our species’ extraordinary cultural capabilities evolve from their roots in animal social learning and tradition? I will provide a provisional answer. After characterizing contemporary research into animal social learning, I will describe the findings of an international competition (the ‘social learning strategies tournament’) that we organized to investigate the best way to learn. I will suggest that the tournament sheds light on why copying is widespread in nature, and why humans happen to be so good at it. I will go on to describe some other theoretical and experimental projects suggesting feedback mechanisms that may have been instrumental to the evolution of culture. These include comparative statistical analyses across primates that revealed that innovation and social learning frequencies co-vary positively with relative brain size, suggesting that these abilities were instrumental in driving the evolution of the large primate brain, a mathematical model of the evolution of teaching, and an experimental study of the cognitive underpinnings of cumulative culture, in children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys.

Kevin Laland is Professor of Behavioural and Evolutionary Biology at the University of St Andrews, and prior to that held positions at UCL , UC Berkeley and Cambridge Universities. His principle academic interests are in the general area of animal behaviour and evolution, with a specific focus on: (i) animal social learning, innovation and intelligence, (ii) niche construction, inclusive inheritance and the extended evolutionary synthesis, and (iii) human evolution, particularly the evolution of cognition. He has published over 200 scientific articles on these topics, and been the recipient of more than £10m in grant income. He has also authored 10 books, including Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (with John Odling-Smee and Marc Feldman, Princeton UP, 2003), Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour, 2nd Edition (with Gillian Brown, Oxford UP, 2011) and Social Learning: an Introduction to Mechanisms, Methods and Models (with William Hoppitt, Princeton UP, 2013). He is an Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

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