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Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony. How culture made the human mind

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr. Kiyoko Gotanda.

Zoology Graduate Student's Invited Speaker

Both demographically and ecologically, humans are a remarkably successful species, and this success is generally attributed to our capacity for culture. But how did our species’ extraordinary cultural capabilities evolve? In this talk I will provide a provisional answer, drawing on my recent book of the same title (1). After a brief overview of innovation and social learning in animals, I will describe the findings of an international competition (the ‘social learning strategies tournament’) which 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 cognition. These include comparative statistical analyses across primates that revealed that innovation and social learning frequencies co-vary positively with relative brain size, tool use, longevity and cognitive performance measures; a theoretical analysis of the evolution of teaching; experimental archaeological investigations of the transmission of lithic technology; and a comparative experimental study of the cognitive underpinnings of cumulative culture, in children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys. Collectively, these studies imply that the truly unique characteristics of our species—such as our intelligence, language, teaching, and cooperation—are not adaptive responses to external conditions such as climate, predators or disease. Rather, the learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback.

1. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind

This talk is part of the Behaviour, Ecology & Evolution Seminar Series series.

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