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ERC

RATCHETCOG Report Summary

Project ID: 648841
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - RATCHETCOG (The Cog in the Ratchet: Illuminating the Cognitive Mechanisms Generating Human Cumulative Culture)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-02-28

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

In human populations, skills and knowledge accumulate over generations, giving rise to behaviours and technologies far more complex than any single individual could achieve alone. This ratchet-like property of human culture appears absent in nonhuman species, as socially transmitted behaviours in animal populations are generally no more complex than those that can be acquired by trial and error. Scientists from a wide range of disciplines have offered high-profile speculative theories about the underlying differences that might be responsible for this striking evolutionary discontinuity, but adequate empirical evidence is still lacking. In the RATCHETCOG project, we aim to implement a comprehensive systematic investigation into cumulative cultural evolution, using experimental methods that offer sufficient flexibility to generate valid comparisons across three critical research domains: species differences across the primate family tree; age differences over human development; and learning condition differences in groups of adult human participants. The methods that we have devised within the project have allowed us to both measure and manipulate the complexity of transmitted behaviours, and as such they provide a tool for analysing the extent of ratcheting under different conditions and across different populations. Each of the three research strands provides a vital source of evidence. Studies of nonhuman primates will reveal the limits on learning in these species, and studies with children will provide key opportunities to determine which cognitive abilities predict the development of capacities for cumulative culture. Finally, comparing different learning conditions in groups of adults is critical, as these experiments will allow clear causal conclusions regarding prerequisites and constraints, in relation to task complexity. The project will therefore fully expose the cognitive machinery responsible for the uniqueness of human culture.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The current report covers the first 18 month period of a five-year project, and therefore we are still at an early stage in the life of the project. Two of the research team members were appointed in the first month of the project, and the remaining four joined in October 2016 (month 14), so much of the planned data collection has only recently begun in earnest, following on from development and pilot work that was completed in the first year. Nonetheless, we have made considerable progress towards realising the objectives outlined in the proposal. The work performed during the period covered by this report has been summarised below, in relation to the stated objectives of the original proposal and grant agreement.


Work Package 1: Task Development

In the research proposal it was stated that, “A task will be developed which can be used to study the potential for ratcheting in the social learning of members of diverse populations, including children of varying ages, and primates of different species, as well as adult humans”.

This objective has been achieved, and (also as per the proposal) we have developed both computer-based, and physical stimuli equivalent, versions of the experimental task. We have so far used the task in data collection with human children (using both a computer-based stimulus-selection version and a physical object-choice version), and with nonhuman primates (squirrel monkeys also tested using a computer-based stimulus-selection version and a physical object-choice version, and capuchin monkeys tested using the computer-based version). We have also developed a more complex computer-based version of the task for our studies with adult humans, and used this to collect pilot data. As planned, one of the postdoctoral research assistants has taken primary responsibility for coding of computer-based experimental methods.


Work Package 2: Testing ontogenetic development of capacities for cumulative culture in human children

In the research proposal it was stated that, “Studies with young children of a range of ages (18 months to 6 years old) will establish at what age ratcheting over learner generations becomes possible in young children”.

As noted above, we have already embarked on data collection with human children using our experimental task. One study (now complete) focussed on children’s performance following observation or personal experience of a simple binary choice. This was an important starting point to help us to understand whether there were differences in the extent to which children were able to learn from observation of another’s experience, compared with their own. Broadly speaking, children were able to use the social information as effectively as information gleaned from their own personal choices and experience, and both abilities improved with age. Over and above what was planned in the original proposal, we have also formed a new collaborative link with researchers from Peking University in Beijing, China to obtain an equivalent cross-cultural dataset. This will allow us to determine the extent to which our findings are generalizable to another population from a very different cultural environment. Ongoing data collection with nonhuman primates – see WP6 – will permit species comparisons, which will allow us to determine whether any aspects of performance on this task appear to distinguish humans from nonhuman primates. One of the PhD students who joined the project in October 2016 has now also embarked on data collection looking at the development of capacities for cumulative culture using our reward-accumulation version of the stimulus selection task (i.e. involving multiple stimuli, and multiple selections, generating a continuum of performance success). We are collaborating on this work with a colleague who specialises in research on children’s cognitive development.


Work Package 3: Testing effects of complexity of social information on children’s capaci

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

Understanding differences between nonhuman learning and traditions and human cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) continues to be an extremely hot topic, and recent demonstrations of CCE-like effects in nonhumans have generated great interest (e.g. Claidiere et al., 2014, Proc Roy Soc B; Sasaki & Biro, 2017, Nature Comms). However, to our knowledge we remain the only group developing flexible methods for studying cumulative culture which will allow us to directly manipulate variables such as the complexity and opacity of the transmitted traits, whilst holding other aspects of the task structure constant. This will permit a much fuller understanding of the mechanisms required to transmit cumulative cultural traits, and the extent to which we can observe similar phenomena in nonhumans. We therefore expect that the findings from this project will have substantial impact across multiple academic disciplines (including Anthropology and Zoology, as well as Psychology). We have also already completed data collection on the first study that we know of which directly compares a replication goal with an external measure goal in a study of cultural evolution in adult humans. Since this study is likely to inform other researchers’ methodological decisions in future experimental work on cultural evolution, we expect this to generate a highly-cited publication.
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