cSCAN Rounds

Experimental approaches to understanding distinctively human culture

Cultural evolution is widely recognised to be a predominantly human phenomenon. Although there is no shortage of examples of cultural transmission in nonhumans, these are acknowledged to be less diverse in content, and less influential as sources of population-level behavioural change and diversity, compared with human cultural evolution. Most notably, human culture supports the inter-generational accumulation of skills and knowledge, such that later generations can benefit from the experiences of their predecessors. However, it remains unclear how exactly human social transmission supports such a facility, and why we do not seem to see it in other species. In recent years, experimental approaches have enabled valuable progress in elucidating the conditions necessary for cumulative culture in humans. Researchers are now beginning to apply similar methods in studies of nonhumans, and these have provided insights into the extent to which similar phenomena can be elicited in other species. I will discuss contributions made using both of these approaches, as well as unresolved issues, and how these could be addressed with further novel approaches to experimental design.