Summer Science Exhibition

Culture evolves!

Meerkats and scorpion

Researchers from four UK institutions are studying how the roots of culture are more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought, and how culture itself evolves in humans.

Culture has been said to be “what makes us human”. It encompasses all that we inherit by learning from others, including language, technology, material artefacts and social customs. Researchers are now discovering the foundations of such social learning and traditions in a wide variety of species including primates and birds. Once human culture became cumulative, building on prior achievements, it evolved in its own right in ways that parallel Darwin’s theory of biological evolution.

“Culture is not limited to human beings, and by studying how animals pass on social and technological traditions, we can better understand how human culture has developed and evolved,” says Professor Andrew Whiten, Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution,from the University of St Andrews. “How human culture evolves is also coming under the scientific microscope, in laboratory ‘micro-society’ experiments.”

Visitors to the exhibit will be able to take part in ‘mini-culture’ experiments. They can take the place of chimpanzees by learning tool use from other chimps, and meet the challenge of building better and taller ‘spaghetti towers’ that researchers are using to study cultural evolution in the lab.

Web Links

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Exhibited by University of St Andrews; University of Cambridge; University of Edinburgh; University of Stirling

Interview with Christine Caldwell, by Nicola Evans

Exhibitor's latest blog

Culture evolving?!
By Olivia Kirtley | Thursday 10th June, 9:57am

The new iPads have become the latest addition to the team’s techno culture. Specially imported from the USA in time for the exhibition, they are already a firm favourite.

Team members from the University of Edinburgh have been hard at work and have created a great interactive game for the iPads that will appeal to all ages, from grown-up professors to the young scientists of tomorrow. The game is intended to simulate some aspects of the cultural evolution of language and involves reproducing sequences of tones. Those that are easy to remember are carried on to the next player, but those that are paricularly tricky to memorise fade into non-existence. But fear not, even if your memory fails you, your attempts will still leave a lasting legacy; all incarnations of the tone sequences can be revisited on a family tree, letting you see exactly how the sequence has evolved.

You too can have a go with our latest gadget at the Culture Evolves exhibit between Friday 25th June and Sunday 4th July. Can’t wait? Check out the Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit page where you can play a demo version plus read exciting info about the experiment behind the game, previously featured on the BBC Horizon programme Until then, here are some photos of the team enjoying their new toy

View all 'Culture evolves!' blog posts

The Exhibition is located in the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, and takes place from Friday 25 June to Sunday 4 July 2010. Open Friday 25 June 6pm - 8.30pm, then daily 10am - 8.30pm. Entrance is free. For groups larger than 12 people, please contact us to book.