Experimental models for testing hypotheses about cumulative cultural evolution



Caldwell CA & Millen AE (2008) Experimental models for testing hypotheses about cumulative cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29 (3), pp. 165-171.;

The rapid appearance (over evolutionary time) of the cognitive skills and complex inventions of modern humans has been attributed to “cumulative cultural evolution” (henceforth CCE), the accumulation of knowledge and skills over generations. To date, researchers have only been able to speculate about the reasons for the apparent absence of this phenomenon in nonhumans, and it has not been possible to test hypotheses regarding the mechanisms underlying it. Here we show that it is possible to demonstrate CCE under laboratory conditions, by simulating generational succession through the repeated removal and replacement of human participants within experimental groups. We created “microsocieties” in which participants were instructed to complete simple tasks using everyday materials. In one of our procedures, participants were instructed to build a paper aeroplane which flew as far as possible, and in the other, they were instructed to construct a tower of spaghetti which was as tall as possible. We show that, in both cases, information accumulates within the groups such that later generations produce designs which are more successful than earlier ones. These methods offer researchers a window to understanding CCE, allowing for experimental manipulation and hypothesis testing.

social learning; culture; cultural evolution; Social change; Social evolution; Learning Psychology of; Social psychology

Evolution and Human Behavior: Volume 29, Issue 3

Publication date31/05/2008
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People (2)


Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor & Deputy Dean of Faculty, Psychology

Dr Ailsa Millen

Dr Ailsa Millen

Lecturer in Psychology, Psychology