Keynote Speakers

The Corvid Cultural Complexity Conundrum
Dr. Nathan Emery
School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University London, UK
Corvids – members of the crow family – possess many of the pieces necessary to complete the puzzle of cultural complexity, such as intelligence and sophisticated social lives. Despite this, the evidence for social learning in corvids, especially with respect to learning about the affordances of objects from others, is rather weak. In this talk, I will discuss the evidence that crows and their kin have complex social lives and that they have an acute understanding of the physical world and the mental world of others. I will then review what little is known about their ability to learn from others, such as what and where to eat and what to avoid, but also their lack of ability to learn simple information from conspecifics and how this may limit their cultural lives. I will discuss how these seemingly contrary findings may have occurred and what they might mean for the idea of animal culture.


New Experiments Track Cumulative Cultural Change in Children and Chimpanzees
Prof. Andrew Whiten

School of Psychology and Neuroscience at The University of St Andrews, UK

It is a commonplace in the cultural evolution literature to read that cumulative culture is unique to humans. Many authors, including senior and prominent ones, assert this. Other researchers, which include me, judge this premature, in part on the basis of naturalistic observations of behaviour patterns such as chimpanzee subterranean termite extraction, that appear too complex to have appeared within a single generation. However we often do not have historical records like we have for humans, to check this.
Experiments offer a potentially reliable alternative approach but are not easy to engineer, nor make reasonably representative of phenomena in the real world that include the cultural evolution of such complexities as computers and royal weddings. One can count on one’s fingers claims for positive results in such experiments with animals, as well as those in peer groups of young children, which until recently offered only negative findings. In this presentation I offer an overview of our recent explorations of the topic with both children and chimpanzees. With the children we have been concerned to create more complex and challenging microworlds that offer the potential for cumulative culture in childrens’ playgroups; these include the opportunity to cumulate multiple levels of achievement, multiple solutions within these levels and use alternative tools to this end. These experiments have yielded some of the first positive evidence for both heightened collective achievement in groups compared to singletons, as well for modest cumulative cultural change. Within a suite of chimpanzee experiments, the most complex techniques available to solve a novel problem were not achieved by individuals acting by themselves, but were acquired by social learning if seeded in a single model, and spread to others. Intriguingly, in one non-seeded control group, when options were experimentally restricted, different individuals generated complementary elements of the complex technique. This then allowed the attainment of the complete sequence through collective action, which then spread by social learning: cumulative culture? Of course in neither child nor chimpanzee studies do we see anything approaching the complexities of the natural history of human cumulative culture, but in both we start to glimpse what appear to be the kinds of foundations on which cumulative phenomena may further build.


Complexity: an inefficient concept for the study of culture
Dr. Eva Reindl & Elisa Bandini
School of Psychology and Neuroscience at The University of St Andrews, UK (ER)
School of Archaeology at the University of Tübingen, UK (EB)
Cumulative cultural evolution has often been described as an increase in the complexity of behavioural traits, knowledge or artefacts. Recently, however, this focus on complexity has been criticised by researchers on both human and non-human culture. We, too, argue that complexity might be an inefficient concept in the definition of cumulative culture, foremost because it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient outcome of cumulative cultural evolution. Instead, we suggest that other factors, such as efficiency, may be more reliable measures of the culture-dependency of traits (see also Dean et al., 2014; Schofield et al., 2018; Vaesen & Houkes, 2017). While a definition of efficiency has been suggested (Schofield et al., 2018), a concrete methodological approach to measuring efficiency in the lab is yet to be developed. We propose some possible operationalisations of efficiency in an experimental setting for both human and non-human primates. Additionally, we elaborate further on the difference between cumulative culture and the newly-presented terms “reinnovations” (Bandini & Tennie, 2017) and “culture-dependent traits” (Reindl et al., 2017), to present an overarching theoretical and methodological approach to examining human and non-human culture.


The ecological vs. social origins of cumulative cultural evolution
Dr. Nicolas Claidière
Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive, France
The interest in cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) was first sparked by Tomasello et al.’s (1993) article which sought to explain the origin of human cultural learning, how humans come to acquire culture. Fifteen years after Tomasello et al.’s article, the definition of CCE, its cognitive underpinnings and the evidence for CCE in non-human animals are still hotly debated. I propose that some misunderstandings between researchers on this topic can be organised along two different solutions to Tomasello et al’s original challenge. I argue that these two views of CCE, that I will call the social and ecological views respectively, have remained largely implicit in recent debates but that once clearly recognised they help understand recent debates and generate interesting and testable hypotheses. I will use both my own and other’s research on CCE to discuss the interest of the theoretical framework I am proposing and the evidence in favour of each proposed view.