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Jelbert S.A.,University of Auckland | Taylor A.H.,University of Auckland | Gray R.D.,University of Auckland | Gray R.D.,Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History | Gray R.D.,Australian National University
Biology Letters | Year: 2016

Large-scale, comparative cognition studies are set to revolutionize the way we investigate and understand the evolution of intelligence. However, the conclusions reached by such work have a key limitation: the cognitive tests themselves. If factors other than cognition can systematically affect the performance of a subset of animals on these tests, we risk drawing the wrong conclusions about how intelligence evolves. Here, we examined whether this is the case for the A-not-B task, recently used by MacLean and co-workers to study self-control among 36 different species. Non-primates performed poorly on this task; possibly because they have difficulty tracking the movements of a human demonstrator, and not because they lack self-control. To test this, we assessed the performance of New Caledonian crows on the A-not-B task before and after two types of training. New Caledonian crows trained to track rewards moved by a human demonstrator were more likely to pass theA-not-B test than birds trained on an unrelated choice task involving inhibitory control.Our findings demonstrate that overlooked task demands can affect performance on a cognitive task, and so bring into question MacLean's conclusion that absolute brain size best predicts self-control.

Ross R.M.,Macquarie University | Atkinson Q.D.,University of Auckland | Atkinson Q.D.,Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Evolution and Human Behavior | Year: 2015

There exist striking resemblances in the stories of ethnolinguistic groups separated by vast geographic distances, with nearby groups having the most in common. The causes of these geographic associations are uncertain. Here we use method and theory from population genetics to examine cultural transmission in folktale inventories of 18 hunter-gatherer groups spread across 6000. km of Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. We find that linguistic relatedness and geographic proximity independently predict overlap in folktale inventories, which provides evidence for both vertical transmission down cultural lineages and horizontal transmission between groups. These results suggest that high-bandwidth social learning across group boundaries is a feature of traditional hunter-gatherers, which may help explain how complex cultural traditions can develop and be retained in ostensibly small groups. © 2015.

Morin O.,Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History | Morin O.,Central European University
Biology and Philosophy | Year: 2016

This discussion paper responds to two recent articles in Biology and Philosophy that raise similar objections to cultural attraction theory, a research trend in cultural evolution putting special emphasis on the fact that human minds create and transform their culture. Both papers are sympathetic to this idea, yet both also regret a lack of consilience with Boyd, Richerson and Henrich’s models of cultural evolution. I explain why cultural attraction theorists propose a different view on three points of concern for our critics. I start by detailing the claim that cultural transmission relies not chiefly on imitation or teaching, but on cognitive mechanisms like argumentation, ostensive communication, or selective trust, whose evolved or habitual function may not be the faithful reproduction of ideas or behaviours. Second, I explain why the distinction between context biases and content biases might not always be the best way to capture the interactions between culture and cognition. Lastly, I show that cultural attraction models cannot be reduced to a model of guided variation, which posits a clear separation between individual and social learning processes. With cultural attraction, the same cognitive mechanisms underlie both innovation and the preservation of traditions. © 2016 The Author(s)

Greenhill S.J.,Australian National University | Greenhill S.J.,Asia Pacific College | Greenhill S.J.,Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
PLoS ONE | Year: 2015

The island of New Guinea has the world's highest linguistic diversity, with more than 900languages divided into at least 23 distinct language families. This diversity includes the world's third largest language family: Trans-New Guinea. However, the region is one of theworld's least well studied, and primary data is scattered across a wide range of publications and more often then not hidden in unpublished "gray" literature. The lack of primaryresearch data on the New Guinea languages has been a major impediment to our understanding of these languages, and the history of the peoples in New Guinea. TransNewGuinea.org aims to collect data about these languages and place them online in a consistent format. This database will enable future research into the New Guinea languages with bothtraditional comparative linguistic methods and novel cutting-edge computational techniques. The long-term aim is to shed light into the prehistory of the peoples of New Guinea, and to understand why there is such major diversity in their languages. © Copyright: 2015 Simon J. Greenhill. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Watts J.,University of Auckland | Greenhill S.J.,Asia Pacific College | Atkinson Q.D.,Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History | Currie T.E.,University of Exeter | And 2 more authors.
Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society | Year: 2015

Supernatural belief presents an explanatory challenge to evolutionary theorists-it is both costly and prevalent. One influential functional explanation claims that the imagined threat of supernatural punishment can suppress selfishness and enhance cooperation. Specifically, morally concerned supreme deities or 'moralizing high gods' have been argued to reduce free-riding in large social groups, enabling believers to build the kind of complex societies that define modern humanity. Previous cross-cultural studies claiming to support the MHG hypothesis rely on correlational analyses only and do not correct for the statistical non-independence of sampled cultures. Here we use a Bayesian phylogenetic approach with a sample of 96 Austronesian cultures to test the MHG hypothesis as well as an alternative supernatural punishment hypothesis that allows punishment by a broad range of moralizing agents. We find evidence that broad supernatural punishment drives political complexity, whereas MHGs follow political complexity. We suggest that the concept of MHGs diffused as part of a suite of traits arising from cultural exchange between complex societies. Our results show the power of phylogenetic methods to address long-standing debates about the origins and functions of religion in human society. © 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.

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