Keynote Speakers 2019

Professor Cecelia Heyes All Souls College and Department of Experimental  Psychology, University of Oxford

Cultural Learning as Communication

What is cultural learning? How does it differ from other kinds of social learning in humans and other animals?  What is it about cultural learning that enables accumulation and cultural selection?  I will suggest that, in addressing these questions, it is helpful to think of cultural learning as a form of communication – as learning from, rather than learning about, other agents.  What is culturally learned from other agents can be about other agents or the inanimate world, but it must involve transfer of competence.  What I learn must depend on what you know.  Drawing on studies of face recognition, reading, motor learning and moral cognition, I will suggest that, although teaching and intentional communication play important roles in human cultural inheritance, they are not required for cultural learning.  It can happen when information leaks out of one agent and into another. 


Dr Martin Doherty University of East Anglia

By any other name: labelling and theory of mind.

How something is labelled is critical to communication, both to identifying what is being talked about and how it is presented.  Labelling affects word learning from infancy, and adults’ tendency to form ‘conceptual pacts’.  I present the claim that the ability to think about labels shares the same conceptual basis as the ability to think about representational mental states.  Fundamental common developments around 4 years allow children to think about false beliefs, and about alternative labels. This finding has clear relevance for claims of infant theory of mind, word learning, and adult conversational practice.  Supporting data will focus on recent research on preschool word learning biases, including bilingual and cross-cultural comparisons. Development will be explained using the metaphor of mental files.


Dr Zanna Clay University of Durham

Abstract TBC


Dr Ellen Garland Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, and Sea Mammal Research Unit, School of Biology, University of St. Andrews

Vocal learning and cultural transmission in cetaceans: lessons from humpback whale song

Cetaceans show some of the most sophisticated and complex vocal and cultural behaviour we know outside of humans, including learning, shared traditions and gene-culture coevolution. Male humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) sing a long, stereotyped, vocally learnt and culturally transmitted song display. At any point in time most males within a population will sing the same version (arrangement and content) of this complex sexual display. However, the song is continually evolving and males must constantly learn and incorporate these changes into their own song to maintain cultural conformity. In addition to evolutionary change, song also undergoes radical ‘revolutions’ where a novel song introduced from a neighbouring population rapidly and completely replaces the existing song. Multiple humpback whale song revolutions have spread across the South Pacific region from the east coast of Australia across to French Polynesia, with a one to two year delay. This has occurred regularly, rapidly and repeatedly across the region; however, we still have a limited understanding of the underlying mechanisms driving this cultural phenomenon. Using empirical data, I will present our current understanding of the mechanisms involved in the song learning process, how these processes may be disrupted, and finally the evolutionary implications for this cultural phenomenon.