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The Cultural Evolution Society's Online Learning Series

Animal Cultures: Core Discoveries and New Horizons

Lecture 10: Implications for the evolution of human culture

Professor Andy Whiten, University of St Andrews, UK

A century ago, and in more recent writings by some authors, it was assumed that culture was a unique human attribute. As this module shows, the reality is instead that culture, in the form of socially inherited traditions, is widespread in animals. A basic implication of this is that human culture likely did not appear out of the blue, but instead evolved from earlier, pre-human forms of culture. We can elucidate the scope of these evolutionary foundations by identifying the array of cultural phenomena that we share with contemporary related species, inferred to be the consequence of our common ancestry.

In this lecture I focus on such inferences concerning the cultural ancestry that appears to be shared across the great apes – ourselves, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

Lecture slides (pdf)

Core (testable) readings

Whiten, A. (2011). The scope of culture in chimpanzees, humans and ancestral apes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366, 997-1007.

Reviews aspects of culture shared by human and non-human apes, particularly chimpanzees, to draw inferences about the ancestral cultures of this group.

Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2009) Ratchetting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364 2405-2415.

Updates core propositions of the 1993 Tomasello et al. BBS paper on Cultural Learning in the light of further evidence, arguing that humans are the only species to display the ratchet-like process of cumulative culture, and suggesting why.

Further reading

Whiten, A. (2017). Social learning and culture in child and chimpanzee. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 129-154.

Updates evidence concerning the comparisons underlying Whiten (2011) above

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