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The Evolution of Culture

Final Report Summary - EVOCULTURE (The Evolution of Culture)

The capacity for culture is clearly a critical factor underlying the success of our species, but how and why did it evolve? What favoured the evolution of cultural capabilities such as social learning, innovation, and teaching, and how has natural selection fashioned these to operate efficiently? These questions motivated the program of research supported by the grant. The issues were addressed deploying an integrated package of innovative empirical and theoretical techniques, comprising five separate but complementary projects.
To work out the best way to learn in a complex variable world I organized two international competitions to identify effective social learning rules (‘tournaments’), in which entrants each proposed learning strategies that were pitted against each other in computer simulations, with the most effective winning a prize. The findings highlighted the value of social learning in general, and in particular learning from successful, young individuals, and from locals in a spatially variable environment.
I also conducted an extensive experimental investigation of a form of social learning exhibited by one species of sticklebacks, identifying its evolutionary history, function, development and mechanism. This uniquely comprehensive analysis established that this form of social learning, known as 'public information use' was an adaptive specialization in learning, exhibited by two of the eight stickleback species examined, that functions to allow them to gather foraging information at low risk by attending to the food-strike actions of conspecifics.
My team has also applied novel statistical methods for inferring causal influences to explore the evolution of brain and culture. We established that primate intelligence, reliance on social learning and innovativeness are predicted by diverse measures of absolute and relative brain size, providing an incontrovertible link between brain size and cognition. Using a combination of conventional statistical analyses and causal models, we showed that life-history length is the dominant predictor of both absolute and relative brain size, and intelligence in primates, and also the best predictor of cultural proclivities. This implies that selection for social intelligence in monkeys and apes was followed by selection for cultural intelligence in restricted large-brained, social lineages, mediated by conferred increases in longevity and diet quality.
We have also developed gene-culture co-evolutionary models of the evolution of social learning, innovation and teaching. This has allowed us to identify some of the cognitive and social factors shaping the evolution of innovative behavior, as well as to understand the evolution of social learning strategies, such as conformity, and of social learning mechanisms, such as local enhancement. We have also developed novel theory that make sense of the curious taxonomic distribution of teaching behaviour in animals, and explains why humans are unique in being able to teach across a wide range of contexts. Experimental testing of our theoretical expectations has led to experimental evidence for the coevolution of hominin tool-making, teaching and language.
Finally, my group has conducted experimental studies of the diffusion of innovations in birds and fishes, and used the data generated to develop novel analytical tools that allow behavioural researchers to identify social learning and predict the diffusion of innovations. These tools, which include network based diffusion analysis, have been made freely available as statistical packages that can be downloaded from my website.
Collectively, the projects have led to 2 books, 71 papers, 7 software packages (freeware), 3 conferences, 2 workshops, an exhibition to the general public, and four special editions of scientific journals. The published work is highly cited, and has impacted on a broad range of academic disciplines, including biology, psychology, anthropology and archaeology.