The evolution of cognitive mechanisms in response to cultural innovations

When humans and other animals make cultural innovations, they also change their environment, thereby imposing new selective pressures that can modify their biological traits. For example, there is evidence that dairy farming by humans favored alleles for adult lactose tolerance. Similarly, the invention of cooking possibly affected the evolution of jaw and tooth morphology. However, when it comes to cognitive traits and learning mechanisms, it is much more difficult to determine whether and how their evolution was affected by culture or by their use in cultural transmission. Here we argue that, excluding very recent cultural innovations, the assumption that culture shaped the evolution of cognition is both more parsimonious and more productive than assuming the opposite. In considering how culture shapes cognition, we suggest that a process-level model of cognitive evolution is necessary and offer such a model. The model employs relatively simple coevolving mechanisms of learning and data acquisition that jointly construct a complex network of a type previously shown to be capable of supporting a range of cognitive abilities. The evolution of cognition, and thus the effect of culture on cognitive evolution, is captured through small modifications of these coevolving learning and data-acquisition mechanisms, whose coordinated action is critical for building an effective network. We use the model to show how these mechanisms are likely to evolve in response to cultural phenomena, such as language and tool-making, which are associated with major changes in data patterns and with new computational and statistical challenges.


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What is cumulative cultural evolution?

In recent years, the phenomenon of cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) has become the focus of major research interest in biology, psychology and anthropology. Some researchers argue that CCE is unique to humans and underlies our extraordinary evolutionary success as a species. Others claim to have found CCE in non-human species. Yet others remain sceptical that CCE is even important for explaining human behavioural diversity and complexity. These debates are hampered by multiple and often ambiguous definitions of CCE. Here, we review how researchers define, use and test CCE. We identify a core set of criteria for CCE which are both necessary and sufficient, and may be found in non-human species. We also identify a set of extended criteria that are observed in human CCE but not, to date, in other species. Different socio-cognitive mechanisms may underlie these different criteria. We reinterpret previous theoretical models and observational and experimental studies of both human and non-human species in light of these more fine-grained criteria. Finally, we discuss key issues surrounding information, fitness and cognition. We recommend that researchers are more explicit about what components of CCE they are testing and claiming to demonstrate.


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An evolutionary timeline of Homo Sapiens

The long evolutionary journey that created modern humans began with a single step—or more accurately—with the ability to walk on two legs. One of our earliest-known ancestors, Sahelanthropus, began the slow transition from ape-like movement some six million years ago, but Homo sapiens wouldn’t show up for more than five million years. During that long interim, a menagerie of different human species lived, evolved and died out, intermingling and sometimes interbreeding along the way. As time went on, their bodies changed, as did their brains and their ability to think, as seen in their tools and technologies.

To understand how Homo sapiens eventually evolved from these older lineages of hominins, the group including modern humans and our closest extinct relatives and ancestors, scientists are unearthing ancient bones and stone tools, digging into our genes and recreating the changing environments that helped shape our ancestors’ world and guide their evolution.


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Game-Changing Innovations: How Culture Can Change the Parameters of Its Own Evolution and Induce Abrupt Cultural Shifts

One of the most puzzling features of the prehistoric record of hominid stone tools is its apparent punctuation: it consists of abrupt bursts of dramatic change that separate long periods of largely unchanging technology. Within each such period, small punctuated cultural modifications take place. Punctuation on multiple timescales and magnitudes is also found in cultural trajectories from historical times. To explain these sharp cultural bursts, researchers invoke such external factors as sudden environmental change, rapid cognitive or morphological change in the hominids that created the tools, or replacement of one species or population by another. Here we propose a dynamic model of cultural evolution that accommodates empirical observations: without invoking external factors, it gives rise to a pattern of rare, dramatic cultural bursts, interspersed by more frequent, smaller, punctuated cultural modifications. Our model includes interdependent innovation processes that occur at different rates. It also incorporates a realistic aspect of cultural evolution: cultural innovations, such as those that increase food availability or that affect cultural transmission, can change the parameters that affect cultural evolution, thereby altering the population’s cultural dynamics and steady state. This steady state can be regarded as a cultural carrying capacity. These parameter-changing cultural innovations occur very rarely, but whenever one occurs, it triggers a dramatic shift towards a new cultural steady state. The smaller and more frequent punctuated cultural changes, on the other hand, are brought about by innovations that spur the invention of further, related, technology, and which occur regardless of whether the population is near its cultural steady state. Our model suggests that common interpretations of cultural shifts as evidence of biological change, for example the appearance of behaviorally modern humans, may be unwarranted.


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Cultural Innovations and Demographic Change

Demography plays a large role in cultural evolution through its effects on the effective rate of innovation. If we assume that useful inventions are rare, then small isolated societies will have low rates of invention. In small populations, complex technology will tend to be lost as a result of random loss or incomplete transmission (the Tasmanian effect). Large populations have more inventors and are more resistant to loss by chance. If human populations can grow freely, then a population-technology-population positive feedback should occur such that human societies reach a stable growth path on which the rate of growth of technology is limited by the rate of invention. This scenario fits the Holocene to a first approximation, but the late Pleistocene is great puzzle. Large-brained hominins existed in Africa and west Eurasia of perhaps 150,000 years with, at best, slow rates of technical innovation. The most sophisticated societies of the last glacial period appear after 50,000 years ago and were apparently restricted to west and north-central Eurasia and North Africa. These patterns have no simple, commonly accepted explanation. We argue that increased high-frequency climate change around 70,000–50,000 years ago may have tipped the balance between humans and their competitor- predators, such as lions and wolves, in favor of humans. At the same time, technically sophisticated hunters would tend to overharvest their prey. Perhaps the ephemeral appearance of complex tools and symbolic artifacts in Africa after 100,000 years ago resulted from hunting inventions that allowed human populations to expand temporarily before prey over exploitation led to human population and technology collapse. Sustained human populations of moderate size using distinctively advanced Upper Paleolithic artifacts may have existed in west Eurasia because cold, continental northeastern Eurasia–Beringia acted as a protected reserve for prey populations.


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Role of Peers in Cultural Innovation and Cultural Transmission

Observations of the spontaneous play behaviors of a group of captive bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) revealed that each individual calf’s play became more complex with increasing age, suggesting that dolphin play may facilitate the ontogeny and maintenance of flexible problem solving skills. If this is so, play may have evolved to help young dolphins learn to adapt to novel situations. Novel play behaviors were more likely to be produced by dolphin calves than by adults, demonstrating that calves were the main source of innovative play behaviors in the group. Calves were also more likely to imitate novel play behaviors first produced by another dolphin, suggesting that calves contribute significantly to the spread of novel behaviors within a group. All in all, these data suggest
that peers may be important catalysts for both cultural innovation and cultural transmission, and that the opportunity to interact with peers may enhance the effect play has on the emergence of flexible
problem solving skills.


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The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve

The Ape that Understood the Universe is the story of the strangest animal in the world: the human animal. It opens with a question: How would an alien scientist view our species? What would it make of our sex differences, our sexual behavior, our altruistic tendencies, and our culture? The book tackles these issues by drawing on two major schools of thought: evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory. The guiding assumption is that humans are animals, and that like all animals, we evolved to pass on our genes. At some point, however, we also evolved the capacity for culture – and from that moment, culture began evolving in its own right. This transformed us from a mere ape into an ape capable of reshaping the planet, travelling to other worlds, and understanding the vast universe of which we’re but a tiny, fleeting fragment. Featuring a new foreword by Michael Shermer.


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Homo erectus—who, when and where: A survey

The state of information bearing on Homo erectus as developed since about 1960 is surveyed, with the resulting effects on problems. Definitions of H. erectus still rest on the Far Eastern samples (Chou‐k’ou‐tien/Java), and thus relate to late Lower to middle Middle Pleistocene material. Numerous important individual finds, however, have expanded the total: extension of the early and very early Sangiran material; very early to later in Africa, and relatively late in Europe. Datings remain uncertain or controversial within broad limits, but with some important successes and revisions.

Discussion by authors of problems concerns degree of divergence among H. erectus populations and rate of evolutionary change; both appear relatively slight, but the data are inadequate for much present judgment. The apparent zone of transition to more advanced morphology (H. sapiens, sensu lato) by the late Middle Pleistocene better reflects signs of regional divergence. Some writers—not all—believe that even the earliest European fossils known (e.g., Petralona) had already advanced to a H. sapiens basic level, with later change in the direction of Neanderthals. A separate African phylum, from OH 9, is also suggested; recent Chinese finds may provide a third different post‐erectus population before the Upper Pleistocene. Taxonomic expression of all this gives some problems.


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Cultural transmission and ecological opportunity jointly shaped global patterns of reliance on agriculture

The evolution of agriculture improved food security and enabled significant increases in the size and complexity of human groups. Despite these positive effects, some societies never adopted these practices, became only partially reliant on them, or even reverted to foraging after temporarily adopting them. Given the critical importance of climate and biotic interactions for modern agriculture, it seems likely that ecological conditions could have played a major role in determining the degree to which different societies adopted farming. However, this seemingly simple proposition has been surprisingly difficult to prove and is currently controversial. Here, we investigate how recent agricultural practices relate both to contemporary ecological opportunities and the suitability of local environments for the first species domesticated by humans. Leveraging a globally distributed dataset on 1,291 traditional societies, we show that after accounting for the effects of cultural transmission and more current ecological opportunities, levels of reliance on farming continue to be predicted by the opportunities local ecologies provided to the first human domesticates even after centuries of cultural evolution. Based on the details of our models, we conclude that ecology probably helped shape the geography of agriculture by biasing both human movement and the human-assisted dispersal of domesticates.


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How observing others’ behavior can increase cooperation

The question of how to get people to work together has bedeviled society for millennia. Now a large-scale field experiment testing how to get more than 2,400 participants to prevent blackouts in the real world is supporting theoretical work on how to get people to cooperate that until now was largely tested only with small experiments in the lab, findings detailed in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mathematical biologist Martin Nowak at Harvard University and his colleagues investigated what they consider a defining aspect of human cooperation, the concept of indirect reciprocity, where one’s behavior toward a person is based on that person’s reputation for what they have done to others. (When it comes to direct reciprocity, on the other hand, your behavior toward a person is based on what that person has done to you.)


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