Earlier this year I went along to the Cultaptation Conference at St Andrews. Despite being a fascinating event, there appears to nothing on the blogsphere pertaining to the speakers and their talks. In fact, this generally holds true for cultural evolution: there are no dedicated blogs reporting what is undoubtedly a serious scientific endeavour. As a remedy I’m going to dedicate several future blog posts to the conference. Until then, here are the talk abstracts for some of my personal highlights:
Technology and maladaptation: is scrounging a good thing?
Technology and maladaptations are part of the culture carried by individuals in a population. We develop a ‘producer-scrounger’ framework that can be viewed in terms of individual and social learning. Producers invent new technology (or cultural innovations) and pay a cost to do so. Scroungers (social learners) copy the technology and the maladaptations generated by producers. The coevolutionary dynamics of producers and scroungers under cultural transmission can be surprisingly complex. Selection-driven cultural innovation and transmission of technology, and its negative consequences, can produce continued population growth or extinction.
How culture transformed human evolution
Humans are a paradoxical species. On the one hand we are exceptionally good at adapting. Humans occupy a wider ecological and geographic range than any other species using a much greater range of subsistence strategies and social organizations. On the other hand, much of our behaviour seems frankly maladaptive. For example, humans engage in cooperation in large groups of unrelated individuals. In this talk I will try to persuade you that both our exceptional adaptability and our propensity for folly stem from the fact that humans, unlike any other animal, acquire important components of their behaviour by observing the behaviour of others. This ability allows us to rapidly evolve superb culturally transmitted adaptations to local conditions, but it also necessarily leads to the cultural evolution of maladaptive behaviour.
Testing hypotheses about cumulative cultural evolution in laboratory microsocities: which learning mechanisms are necessary?
Cumulative cultural evolution has been suggested to account for key cognitive and behavioural attributes which distinguish modern humans from our anatomically similar ancestors. However, researchers have yet to establish which cognitive mechanisms may be responsible for this kind of learning, or indeed whether these could be unique to humans as has been proposed. We have shown that human participants can still engage in cumulative cultural learning even when access to certain sources of social information is restricted. We manipulated the availability of opportunities for: imitation (reproducing actions); emulation (reproducing end results); and teaching. We found that each was independently sufficient for participants to show cumulative culture.
Cultural inheritance: a component of human ecological inheritance
The theory of niche construction adds ecological inheritance to genetic inheritance in evolution (Odling-Smee et al., 2003). Ecological inheritance is the inheritance of natural selection pressures that have previously been modified by niche-constructing organisms. Descendant organisms therefore inherit both genes, and biotically transformed natural selection pressures in their external environments from their ancestors. The combination is called niche inheritance. Niche inheritance potentially incorporates other genetic and non-genetic inheritance systems that may also be significant in evolution, for instance, epigenetic and maternal inheritance (Jablonka & Lamb, 2005). In humans, the theory of human gene-culture coevolution adds human cultural inheritance to genetic inheritance in human evolution. In combination, niche construction theory and gene-culture coevolutionary theory therefore initially promoted a triple inheritance model of human evolution, including genetic, ecological and cultural inheritance systems (Laland et al., 2000). Recently, however, it has become clear that provided the concept of niche inheritance is sufficiently well-defined, human cultural inheritance, including both inherited material culture and inherited cultural knowledge, reduces to a particularly potent component of a more general ecological inheritance in human evolution. I shall argue the case for that.