2015 » Speakers


Keynote: Dr Thom Scott-Phillips, Durham University
Dr Scott-Phillip’s work is based around evolutionary and cognitive foundations of culture and the human mind, particularly communication and language.
Paper Title: The theory of cultural Attraction
Abstract: Cultural attraction is a theoretical framework for explaining culture. It emphasises how cultural items are transformed during propagation, and how these transformations play a critical role in explaining why some cultural items are common in a population, while others are not. Dr. Scott-Phillips will talk about theoretical and empirical aspects of “cultural attraction”, and in particular the similarities and differences it shares with the cultural evolution literature.

Paper One: Dr Laurel Fogarty, UCL
Title: Modelling cultural change: what mathematics can add to the study of culture and why it matters.
Abstract: Cultural evolution has traditionally been a heavily theoretical field. I will discuss the contributions of cultural evolution theory from its origins in the 1970s to current theory and beyond. Using our work on the evolution of cultural repertoire size I will draw out some similarities between long-established population genetic models and our models of cultural evolution, discuss some limitations of this approach, and explore where a theoretical approach to the study of culture might go next.

Paper Two: Maggie Lieu, University of Birmingham
The transition of culture through interplanetary colonisation
Abstract: Colonisation of other planets is a crucial development for mankind to
continuing growing and for survival. Currently however, humans have not
travelled any further than the moon. Maggie will be talking about the current
plans of Mars One to colonise Mars and discuss the cultural effects that
such a change will have those who have volunteered for this one way-trip.


KeynoteDr Jamie Tehrani, Durham University
Dr Tehrani’s work concerns the transmission of culture within and between generations, focusing on the question why some cultural phenomena catch on while others die out and how these patterns shape cultural diversity.
Paper Title: Cultural traditions and population histories – how are they related?
Abstract: Early applications of phylogenetic methods to culture were preoccupied with the question of how “species-like” cultures are. The validity of the approach seemed to hinge on the extent to which cultural information was transmitted “vertically” from parents to offspring and from ancestral populations to their descendants, or “horizontally” between members of the same generation and across contemporaneous societies. However, this once heated debate has cooled in the cold light of subsequent research, which has shown that phylogenetic methods are useful even when culture evolves in ways that are very unlike biological species, and can even be used to reconstruct “horizontally” transmitted cultural traditions. These discoveries have greatly increased the scope of cultural phylogenetic analysis, and raise new and more nuanced questions concerning the relationships between cultural evolution and population histories.

Paper Two: Joseph Stubbersfield, University of St Andrews
Title: Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality: Testing for a moral content bias in cultural transmission
Abstract: Moral stories form the basis of a range of religious texts, folklore and tabloid newspapers. Previous research has suggested that our moral sense is either adaptive or an exaptation with moral codes being the product of cultural evolution. Social information bias may predispose people towards recalling and transmitting moral information but is morality a special case? Moral and non-moral versions of ten vignettes were transmitted along ten linear transmission chains of four generations. No significant effect of morality as a category (moral vs non-moral) was found, however, the morally good score (as determined by a previous validation study) was a significant predictor of fidelity in transmission (other significant predictors being participant age, gender, word count and featured emotion). Vignettes featuring different emotions varied in accuracy of transmission, with anger and gratitude producing the highest level of accuracy. This contrasts with an earlier individual recall study which found no advantage for morality in any form, instead finding social and survival information better predicted recall. The results of both studies suggest a bias towards morally good content when there is communicative intent that is not present in individual recall.


Keynote: Dr Claudio Tennie, University of Birmingham
Dr Tennie’s work concerns the evolutionary origins of culture in human and non-human great apes, with a focus on exploring factors enabling cumulative culture.
Paper Title: Human culture: (still) alien to chimpanzee culture
Abstract: The potential of culture to help explain animal behaviour is no longer neglected in biology. Ideas and methods derived from work on human culture are increasingly used in non-human cases. However we need to be careful: first we must establish that human and non-human culture arise via the same underlying mechanisms and hence will lead to similar large scale patterns. So, do they? My work has focused on this question for the past dozen years or so, and my tentative conclusion is: no, they do not. It appears that non-human culture is fundamentally different from human culture. At the very least this seems to be the case for non-human great ape culture, which rests upon biological evolution in conjunction with low-fidelity transmission mechanisms.

Paper One: Elena Miu, University of St Andrews
Title: Emergent conformity in cumulative culture
Abstract: Responsible for the overwhelming technological and ecological success of the species, human culture seems to be unique in many ways. Perhaps one of its most important characteristics is the fact that it is cumulative in a way that non – human culture does not seem to be. Knowledge is maintained, built upon and combined in a population, accumulating over generations and producing a “ratcheting” of skill. Although there is a large literature on social learning and the emergence of culture in both human and non-human species, the drivers of cumulative culture are still poorly understood in anything beyond simple laboratory experiments. I will talk about work I did during my PhD that aims to study the dynamics of cumulative culture in a realistic setting with a large-scale dataset from a collaborative programming competition.

Paper Two: Dr William Hoppitt, Anglia Ruskin University
Title:Developing quantitative methods for studying social learning in the field
Abstract:There are numerous claims of nonhuman animal culture in a wide variety of species, including chimpanzees, whales and dolphins, but often these claims are contentious, with critics claiming the behaviour patterns involved may not be transmitted between individuals by social learning. To resolve the animal cultures debate, we require methods to infer whether or not social transmission is occurring in natural contexts, and to quantify how important social transmission is in such cases. I will describe one such methodology, network based diffusion analysis (NBDA): explaining how the method works, and illustrating its use with case studies on humpback whales and chimpanzees.


Keynote:  Prof Alex Bentley, University of Bristol
Prof Bentley’s work concerns culture evolution and diversification, focusing on the spread of information and behaviour in modern populations.
Paper Title: 
Cultural sustainability from prehistory to modern media
For millennia, cultural change happened gradually over many human generations, as people inherited traditional knowledge from local social networks. In the 21st century, considerable exchange happens within generations, and potentially across a larger range of belief systems. We can use methods from anthropology, archaeology and data sciences to examine cultural change across a range of temporal and population scales. This includes the dynamics of slow change in kinship and inequality in ancient Europe and Southeast Asia, as well as rapid contemporary trends transmitted through new communication technologies. I synthesise my work as a new view of how to study the future cultural diversity.

Paper One: Dr Liliana Janik, University of Cambridge
Title: Exploring visual culture: neurophysiology, cultural preferences and storytelling over the last hundred thousand years
Abstract: The first material remains known to us as evidence of Modern Human non-verbal communication, represented through visual culture, was discovered in Africa and is dated to over 100,000 years ago. From then on we have a record of the use of human neurophysiological capacities in visual storytelling. But the stories are not the same, since the way we see and express ourselves visually is culturally moderated, creating unique modes of stories telling/visualising in the past and the present. In this paper I explore some neurophysiological capacities, such as embodiment, fragmentation, colour, line or motion, as a part of visual perceptions shaped by cultural preferences conveyed to us by artists as visual narratives. However, we may not be able to access all aspects of these narratives, as our own visual tradition and cultural biases prevent us from doing so, overriding and ‘visually silencing’ our brains and a way of seeing.  Examining this phenomenon offers an exciting new path looking at both past and contemporary visual culture.

Paper Two: Dr Fiona Coward, University of Bournemouth                                                              Title: What does (material) culture do?
Abstract: The production of material culture has long been considered a fundamental defining characteristic of modern humans. However, we now know that many other species use and even manufacture tools, and also demonstrate cultural variability in a variety of social practices. Such patterns of behaviour are most obviously found among primates, but also in only very distantly related lineages of the animal kingdom, suggesting that socially transmitted cultures are adaptive in a range of different contexts. Such findings may seem to question the relevance of material culture to definitions of humanity, but while modern human material cultures clearly share many features with those of other species, they are nevertheless markedly different in other ways. In this talk I will argue that the extent to which humans invest socially and emotionally in material culture is one of the most unique characteristics of our species, and ask when and why such investment occurred during hominin and human evolution.