Departmental Colloquium: Alex Thornton (Centre for Ecology and Conservation University of Exeter): Social learning and the evolution of culture
Social learning and the Evolution of Culture
Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter
Throughout the animal kingdom, individuals can acquire valuable information by learning from others. In some species, this social transmission of information can shape the behaviour and skills not only of individuals, but of whole groups, leading to the establishment of local cultural variants. In our own species, cultural traits themselves evolve, permitting the incremental improvements in tools and technologies that have allowed us to colonise the harshest environments on Earth and even explore beyond the confines of our own planet. In this talk I will consider the ultimate and proximate factors underpinning the biological origins of culture and its subsequent elaboration in humans. Using examples from my research on meerkats, jackdaws and great tits I will begin by consider how variation in the adaptive value of social information drives learning mechanisms and strategies and the potential for group-level conformity. I will then present data from experiments on humans, casting some doubt on the widely accepted notion that the human capacity for cumulative culture rests on the evolution of high-fidelity mechanisms of social learning.