Using experimental research designs to explore the scope of cumulative culture in humans and other animals



Caldwell CA (2020) Using experimental research designs to explore the scope of cumulative culture in humans and other animals. Topics in Cognitive Science, 12 (2), pp. 673-689.

In humans, cultural evolutionary processes are capable of shaping our cognition, because the conceptual tools we learn from others enable mental feats which otherwise would be beyond our capabilities. This is possible because human culture supports the inter-generational accumulation of skills and knowledge, such that later generations can benefit from the experience and exploration efforts of their predecessors. However, it remains unclear how exactly human social transmission supports the accumulation of advantageous traits, and why we see little evidence of this in the natural behaviour of other species. Thus, it is difficult to know whether the cognitive abilities of other animals might be similarly scaffolded by processes of cultural evolution. In this article I discuss how experimental studies of cultural evolution have contributed to our understanding of human cumulative culture, as well as some of the limitations of these approaches. I also discuss how similar research designs can be used to evaluate the potential for cumulative culture in other species. Such research may be able to clarify what distinguishes human cumulative culture from related phenomena in nonhumans, shedding light on the issue of whether other species also have the potential to develop cognitive capacities that are outcomes of cultural evolution.

cumulative culture; cultural evolution; comparative psychology; transmission chain; ratchet effect; human; nonhuman; experimental design;

Topics in Cognitive Science: Volume 12, Issue 2

FundersEuropean Commission
Publication date30/04/2020
Publication date online30/10/2018
Date accepted by journal26/09/2018

People (1)


Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor, Psychology

Projects (1)