A series of four seminars, co-hosted between the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, featuring invited speakers and speakers from those universities.
Humans are social animals – we live in groups, we cooperate, we communicate, we learn from one another. These social behaviours are observed in other species, but humans are unusual in that we are “deeply” social – we cooperate particularly frequently and fruitfully, we learn vast amounts of what we know from others, and we communicate using a system – language – which is quite unlike anything else observed in the natural world.
This deeply social nature of humans therefore needs to be explained – how did we come to be so social, and what consequences does this sociality have for human evolution? The seminar series brought together a group of researchers for a series of meetings designed to address these questions. The core group of participants for the seminar series was drawn from the Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit (LEC), based at the University of Edinburgh, and the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution (SoLaCE), University of St Andrews.
The seminar series dealt in particular with the question of culture. A cultural system is one in which individuals learn some aspect of their behaviour based upon observations of the behaviour of others. Humans are a massively cultural species – as mentioned above, one aspect of our deeply social nature is that we acquire large amounts of knowledge via learning from others. Culture poses several questions for researchers interested in sociality and human evolution. Firstly, what mental apparatus is required to support cultural learning? Are these cognitive capacities unique to humans, or can we see similar capabilities in other species? Secondly, what evolutionary consequences has this cultural backdrop had for the evolution of the human mind? For example, have aspects of the human cognitive system evolved specifically to exploit our cultural inheritance? Finally, cultural transmission leads to the possibility of cultural evolution – change in a cultural system over time. How does this second evolutionary system work, and what aspects of human behaviour can be attributed to processes of cultural evolution?
NA: this was a series of meetings, rather than a research project. However, the series lead to a Theme Issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, edited by K Smith.