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The Evolution of Culture

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Aurélien Mounier.

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.

This talk is part of the Biological Anthropology Seminar Series series.

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