Morten H. Christiansen [website]
Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science Program
Language Evolution as Cultural Evolution
The new millennium has seen a shift toward explaining language evolution in terms of cultural evolution rather than biological adaptation. A rapidly growing bulk of work has begun to show how various nonlinguistic biases amplified by cultural transmission across generations may help explain many facets of linguistic structure observable in today’s languages. I will discuss the motivation behind this paradigm change and provide some examples from my own research.
Michael Kalish [website]
Department of Psychology
Iterated learning reveals inductive priors
Cultural evolution can be viewed through a formal lens as an iterated process of intergenerational learning. I present an analysis of iterated learning with Bayesian agents, which provides a very general view of the consequences of intergenerational knowledge transmission. In essence, iterated learning results in regularization such that the statistical properties of the knowledge being transmitted at the end of the chain are due entirely to the inductive biases common to all the learners in the chain. I will briefly discuss the implications of this view, and implications of modifications to the transmission process.
Peter J. Richerson [website]
University of California, Davis
Department of Environmental Science and Policy
The cognitive and emotional bases of a system for cumulative culture
The main human adaptive specialization is the ability to rapidly evolve socio-economic adaptations to novel environments. Many species have modest capacities for social learning but no other species is so dependent upon complex tools and social organization as ours. Still, most of the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of our social learning system have roots in our primate past. Our closest ape relatives are social, visual, large brained, and comparatively adept social learners. Many cognitive and emotional systems are probably highly conserved. For example, object recognition is a problem for all visually oriented creatures and is probably conserved. On the other hand, dependence on olfaction appears to have substantially diminished, and evolved in form, in humans compared to our closest relatives. The social learning/teaching system that develops in the first year of life in humans has been intensively studied by developmental and comparative psychologists in recent decades and is fairly well understood. Our large prefrontal cortex is hypothesized to underlie our ability to learn complex and arbitrary motor skills like intricate weaving patterns and playing musical instruments. Social-cognitive features such as language and norm acquisition are also tolerably well understood. On the emotional side, human tolerance of strangers and emotional affiliation with individuals differ substantially from those of other apes. We even bond emotionally with large, symbolically marked social units. It apparently takes large groups to support complex culture, so the affective underpinnings of social life are as important as the cognitive underpinnings.
David Sloan Wilson [website]
Departments of Biology and Anthropology
Sacred Texts as Cultural Genomes: Identifying the Mechanisms of Cultural Evolution
If culture is an evolutionary process, then there must be mechanisms of inheritance and transcription that are functionally analogous to the mechanisms of genetic evolution. Sacred religious texts are good candidates for cultural genomes. They are replicated with high fidelity. They have a multi-part structure similar to genes on chromosomes. The parts are differentially invoked in response to environmental conditions. And the invocations have a potent effect upon action, or phenotypic expression. I will report research with my graduate students Yasha Hartberg and Taylor Lange that attempts to clarify the mechanisms of cultural evolution using concepts and empirical methods borrowed from the much more advanced study of genetic evolution.
Dimitris Xygalatas [website]
University of Connecticut, Department of Anthropology
Aarhus University, Interacting Minds Centre
What is Ritual for?
Human rituals are puzzling, as they typically involve obvious expenditures of effort, energy and resources without equally obvious payoffs. This puzzle is particularly pronounced in the case of high-intensity rituals that involve painful, stressful, or even dangerous activities. Evolutionary theorists have long proposed that such costly behaviors would not have survived throughout human history unless they conveyed certain benefits to their practitioners. But how can such benefits be operationalised and measured? In this talk, I will present a series of studies that combined laboratory and field methods to explore and quantify the effects of some of the world’s most intense rituals, involving fire-walking, body piercing, and other forms of self-imposed suffering.