Social learning and cultural behavioural evolution

Institute Seminar by Claudio Tennie

  • Date: May 14, 2024
  • Time: 10:30 AM - 11:30 AM (Local Time Germany)
  • Speaker: Claudio Tennie
  • Claudio Tennie's (University of Tübingen) main research interest is the "evolution of cultural evolution" - which he sees most clearly in the human case. Towards a better understanding of the human case especially, he studies humans as well as humans' closest living (apes) and dead (hominins) relatives. This approach also explains his unusual background: originally trained as a behavioural biologist, he became a comparative psychologist during his PhD (MPI EVAN, Leipzig). Later, he again retrained as a cognitive archaeologist (especially with regard to early stone tools) - the field of study also of his recent ERC "STONECULT" grant.
  • Location: Bückle St. 5a, 78467 Konstanz
  • Room: Seminar room MPI-AB Bücklestrasse + Online
  • Host: Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior
  • Contact:
Social learning and cultural behavioural evolution
The topic of social learning initially had a slow start in animal behaviour, but now even exists as its own sub-field. My own niche within this new field is the study of ape social learning, and of ape cultures. Yet, regardless of study species, one of the main lessons from decades of study is that social learning is not monolithic. There are many types of social learning, each allowing for - but also sometimes curtailing - specific types of cultural effects. One of these effects is that of cultural evolution. For cultural evolution to happen, the underlying social learning type needs to be powerful enough to create replicator dynamics and, with it, inheritance pathways. Yet, few of the many social learning mechanisms described today create this necessary level of inheritance for a particularly important aspect of behaviour: for know-how-to-behave (what I call "know-how"). Therefore, there is a mismatch between finding general evidence for social learning of some type(s) (which will always suffice for general culture claims) and finding evidence for those social learning types that can make animals socially learn know-how. In certain additional circumstances, the latter type of learning can even allow for the cultural evolution of behavioural know-how beyond levels afforded by biological backgrounds. I call these latter cases "know-how copying". As I will show, know-how copying happens frequently in humans and also plays a large role. Yet, contrary to frequent claims in the literature, despite more than twenty years of dedicated research, my contrasting conclusion regarding ape cultures will be this. I fully agree that ape cultures exist, and also that apes can be socially triggered to develop similar know-how as others around them. Yet, my research supports the notion that apes completely or nearly completely lack cultural evolution of behavioural know-how, because the logical pre-requisite for such evolution - know-how copying - is weak, rare or perhaps non-existent in apes. Exceptions to this pattern are human-enculturated and/or human-trained apes. Such apes sometimes prove able to (weakly) copy know-how. Yet, I will additionally show why these humanised ape cases lack ecological relevance.

The MPI-AB Seminar Series is open to members of MPI and Uni Konstanz. The zoom link is published each week in the MPI-AB newsletter.

Go to Editor View