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The Cultural Evolution Society's Online Learning Series

Animal Cultures: Core Discoveries and New Horizons

Lecture 9: Cumulative cultural evolution in animals?

Nicolas Claidière, CNRS, Aix-Marseille University, France

The previous lectures have established that animal culture is widespread in the animal kingdom and touches many different domains (such as foraging, mate choice, tool use, etc). However, human culture is also endlessly changing through time, a process referred to as ‘cumulative cultural evolution’ (CCE). Do animal cultures also display this kind of evolution? To answer this question the lecture is divided into three parts addressing:

  1. the definition and historical background behind the notion of CCE
  2. the evidence we currently have regarding CCE
  3. the mechanistic origins of this phenomenon.

Nicolas Claidière

Lecture 9a:Definition and historical background

Lecture 9b: Evidence for CCE in non-human animals

Lecture 9c: The origin of CCE

Lecture slides (pdf)

Core (testable) readings

Mesoudi, A., & Thornton, A. (2018). What is cumulative cultural evolution? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 285(1880). doi:10.1098/rspb.2018.0712

Discusses a core set of criteria to assess the presence of CCE in animals as well as reviewing the evidence.

Sasaki, T., & Biro, D. (2017). Cumulative culture can emerge from collective intelligence in animal groups. Nature Communications, 8(1), 15049. doi:10.1038/ncomms15049

A clear and comprehensive study showing progressive improvement of flying routes in pigeons.

Further reading

Tomasello, M., Kruger, A. C., & Ratner, H. H. (1993). Cultural learning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16, 495-552.

The paper that sparked the modern interest in CCE comparing human and non-human social learning (imitation) and suggesting that fidelity is at the origin of the ratchet effect in humans.

Claidière, N., Smith, K., Kirby, S., & Fagot, J. (2014). Cultural evolution of systematically structured behaviour in a non-human primate. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281, 1797. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.1541

This experimental paper shows how cultural evolution can lead to the emergence of complex behaviours typical of human cultural evolution.

Whiten, A. (2019). Cultural Evolution in Animals. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 50(1), 27-48. doi:10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-110218-025040

For a wider perspective on cultural evolution in general.

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