Empirical investigations of social learning, cooperation, and their role in the evolution of complex culture
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There is something unique about human culture. Its complex technologies, customs, institutions, symbolisms and norms, which are shared and maintained and improved across countless generations, are what sets it apart from the ‘cultures’ of other animals. The fundamental question that researchers are only just beginning to unravel is: How do we account for the gap between their ‘cultures’ and ours? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of culture’s complex constituent components: from the micro-level psychological mechanisms that guide and facilitate accurate social learning, to the macro-level cultural processes that unfold within large-scale cooperative groups. This thesis attempts to contribute to two broad themes that are of relevance to this question. The first theme involves the evolution of accurate and high-fidelity cultural transmission. In Chapter 2, a meta-analysis conducted across primate social learning studies finds support for the common assumption that imitative and/or emulative learning mechanisms are required for the high-fidelity transmission of complex instrumental cultural goals. Chapter 3, adopting an experimental study with young children, then questions the claim that mechanisms of high-fidelity copying have reached such heights in our own species that they will even lead us to blindly copy irrelevant, and potentially costly, information. The second theme involves investigations of the mutually reinforcing relationship predicted between cultural complexity and ultra-cooperativeness in humans, employing a series of laboratory-based experimental investigations with adults. Chapter 4 finds only limited support for a positive relationship between cooperative behaviour and behavioural imitation, which is believed to facilitate cultural group cohesion. Finally, Chapter 5 presents evidence suggesting that access to cultural information is positively associated with an individual’s cooperative reputation, and argues that this dynamic might help to scaffold the evolution of increased cultural complexity and cooperation in a learning environment where cultural information carries high value.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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