Podium presentations

We will have 4 podium presentations:

Podium presentation 1

Amanda Lucas1, Francesca Happé, Christine Caldwell, Alex Thornton, 1University of Exeter

Examining the role of teaching and imitation in generating cumulative culture

Experimental studies of cumulative cultural evolution have employed ‘transmission chain’ designs in which small groups of participants – who are instructed to design and make artefacts for a specific purpose – are replaced, one by one, with naïve individuals.  To date, such studies have demonstrated cumulative improvements in (a) aeroplanes made from paper and (b) baskets made from newspaper and other everyday materials, when participants have the opportunity to emulate previous artefacts (i.e., copy previous designs). These results cast doubt over theoretical predictions that uniquely human social learning mechanisms (such as high fidelity imitation and teaching) are essential for cumulative culture.

We suggest that these findings may be applicable only to relatively simple artefacts that are straightforward to copy.  We introduce a novel tool-making task in which the process of construction is not obvious from viewing the end product. We demonstrate that, while artefacts made from folded paper and baskets (as described above) can be readily reproduced through either emulation or teaching, our novel tool can be accurately reproduced only through teaching and not emulation.  We then present preliminary findings from transmission chain experiments employing this novel tool, in which we examine the role of teaching and imitation in generating cumulative improvements.


Podium presentation 2

Claudio Tennie, Birmingham Fellow, University of Birmingham

If cultural attractors explain human culture, then imitation should not matter (much). So, does it?

The main difference between cultural attractor theory (CAT) and the standard imitation theory (SIT) is that the former is based on iterative reconstruction, whereas the latter is based on iterative replication. Imitation is a replicative mechanism, and many (me included) have argued that it is the key mechanism that has enabled cumulative culture in our own species. In addition, there are now countless studies showing that humans imitate – but that does not mean that humans can only imitate. We have recently added our own evidence (Reindl et al. 2016) that humans are likewise able to reconstruct. Which of these – replication or reconstruction – is more important (or neccessary) for cultural accumulation? One way to test this is to take away one of the two mechanisms, in particular imitation, and to then see what a culture based entirely on the other mechanisms (i.e. here: replication) would look like. In my talk I will describe exactly such a case – culture without imitation – and which turns out to be non-cumulative. I will also talk about the case of early stone tool making. I will conclude that imitation, i.e. replication, is key to cumulative culture.

Podium presentation 3

Mathieu Charbonneau, Central European University

 All innovations are equal, but some more than others: (Re)integrating modification processes to the origins of cumulative culture

The cumulative open-endedness of human cultures represents a major break with the social traditions of nonhuman species. As traditions are altered and the modifications retained along the cultural lineage, human populations are capable of producing complex traits that no individual could have figured out on its own. High -fidelity transmission appears to play a central role in this mechanism, acting as a ratchet retaining modifications, thus allowing the historical buildup of complex traditions. Mechanisms acting against slippage are important, of course, but cultures also need to move forward for the ratchet to retain anything at all. Modification-generating processes, their population-level consequences, and the many ways they shape cumulative culture have been overlooked. Key to a better understanding of cultural modification processes is taking seriously that cultural traditions consist of complex, hierarchically structured recipes. Taking such structures seriously and assessing the different ways they can be modified, a novel picture for the onset of cumulative cultural evolution emerges. I argue that a possible impediment for cumulative culture in nonhuman animals may in fact reside not so much in the fidelity of their social learning mechanisms but rather in the exploratory constraints imposed by their (in)capacity to modify complex, hierarchically structured cultural traits.


Podium presentation 4

Andrew Buskell, London School of Economics

Cultural Evolvability: exploring Cumulative Culture

Opinion in evolutionary biology and the philosophy of biology has coalesced on an interpretation of evolvability as the structure of heritable variation available for selective processes (Brown 2014; Brigandt 2015). Evolvability thus explains constraints and limitations on a population’s exploration through morphological design-space, as well as discontinuous ‘saltationist’ movement through this space (e.g. Robert 2002, 2005. Cf. Brown 2014). In this paper, I explore the usefulness of the evolvability concept for Cultural Evolutionary Theory (CET). As I show, looking at studies on cumulative culture through the lens of evolvability helps to organise research into distinct categories, or dimensions that alter the structure, extent, and retention of cultural variation. I focus on three broadly characterised dimensions in this paper: ‘attention and retention’, ‘insight and exploration’, and ‘society and generative entrenchment.’ Each of these dimensions serves as a focal point for research and debate about the nature of cumulative culture and the causal factors involved. While work around imitation, teaching, and attention (‘attention and retention’) are perhaps the most well known (inter alia Boyd and Richerson 1985, 2005; Tomasello 1999, 2014; Henrich 2001, 2015; Richerson and Boyd 2005), integrating such research with work on metacognition, insight, creativity and causal knowledge (‘insight and exploration’) as well as demography, social structure, and technological entrenchment (‘society and generative entrenchment’) helps to make clear the way in which various causal factors can together impact the structure and extent of variation available for culture to accumulate.