Understanding the cumulative process of evolutionary human culture has been in the focus of recent research. This interest is motivated by the search of underlying fundamentals of human cognitive capacity to develop a cumulative culture through evolution and their ability to cultivate and transcend and further transmit such innovative knowledge. Research of cultural patterns in a variety of species and their ability for social learning skills brings this focus closer to clarity. Understanding the elementary origins that allow human cognition to acquire intricate social learning skills in accordance to understanding the areas where these skills are considered to be most favourable is crucial for the comprehension of the cumulative process of cultural evolution. Areas that are discussed in this paper where social skills are favourable includes the Social Brain Hypothesis in relation to cultural intelligence, social groups and its role in informational transmission and the coevolution of teaching in cooperative breeding and cultural material.
All of which stems from the evolution of elaborative social learning skills present in humans and thus allowing the process of cumulative culture to expanse. Developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello claims that cultural intelligence is a form of social intelligence. In order to fully understand the role of social groups in the passing down of cultural information, exploring the idea of Social Brain Hypothesis (SBH) is crucial – specifically the role that social conditions play in SBH, and not necessarily the correlation between the neocortex size and inner group. Psychologists Richard William Bryne and Andrew Whiten were the first to discuss what later became the Social Brain Hypothesis, which states that the factor “differentiating primates from all other species is the complexity of their social lives” (Dunbar and Shultz 2007, 1344). This theory places an emphasis on the complex social environments that primates live in, which subsequently demanded an increase in social intelligence through the acts of social learning.
Culture, first defined by Social Anthropologist, Sir Edward Tylor in 1871, “is the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by an individual as a member of society”. Whether these techniques are acquired from a fully connected or a partially connected group, it is still considered as socially transmitted knowledge through the complexity of human social lives. The cognitive demands of individuals living in a complexly bonded social group can be deemed as a driving force for the need of extended social learning skills in transmitting collective culture. The opposite of social learning is therefore knowledge that is acquired without the help of conspecifics, which can also be referred to individual or asocial learning (Van Schaik et al., 2016, 42).
Through the experimental works done on exploring the effects of learning in a social or asocial environment, it was concluded that a naive individual was able to learn certain tasks and concepts at a faster rate when there was the presence of role models and experts in comparison where such exposure was absent from the transmission (Van Schaik et al., 2016, 42). This is because asocial learning involves cost and consequently so, “through social learning of skills an individual can acquire the routine knowledge and skills faster and may also acquire innovative skills that it might not have acquired at all on its own” (Van Schaik et al., 2016, 47). It is undeniable that the essence of culture is produced through social learning (Van Schaik et al., 2016, 41). The concept of social learning is defined as “the learning that is influenced by observation of, or interaction with, another animal/member of society” (Van Schaik et al.
, 2016, 42). Inarguably, other animals have their own culture and are capable of social intelligence, including but not limited to, the innovation of tool use. However, such social learning skills belonging to primates are much more simplified and insufficient when compared to the skills needed to propel the continuum of human culture. A crucial role that social transmission plays in the evolution of human culture is the feedback loop that it creates with innovative technologies. As technology becomes more sophisticated, our dependence upon it also increases, which in turns requires an enhancement in social learning if we want to maintain and improve on such advances. This positive feedback loop that contributes to the progression of human culture is therefore initially driven by social learning. With this continuum of culture also comes the introduction of the Ratchet Effect, which is simply the accumulation of improvements (Tomasello et al.
1993, 495). Humans are dependent on collective knowledge, and the lack of cultural background can be fatal to the survival of the human species. As a result, modifications are constantly being made to ensure efficiency, effectiveness, and ultimately, survival of an entire human race. In addition, culture is a continuum rather than a concrete concept. This very dynamic continuum is what makes human social lives considerably more complex when compared to other primates.
The advancement and evolution of cumulative culture is brought about by the complex and unique mechanisms that humans have developed to enforce cooperation through social learning. Exemplified by the current social norms, cooperative breeding and multigenerational investment in offsprings. All of these means require a distinctive form of teaching that is found to be different from the ways of teaching in animals, such as language and shared intentionality, with the latter being the ability and motivation to engage with others in collaborative and cooperative activities with joint goals and intentions (Tomasello et al. 2005).
Because shared intentionality is a trait that is more reliant on motivation and cooperation between individuals and not on one’s cognitive abilities, it is a characteristic that is solely found in humans and not in neighbouring lineages, such as apes. The commitment from multiple members of society having a shared goal facilitates social learning and ultimately the fidelity of cultural transmission, subsequently assisting in the evolution of the ratchet effect of human cumulative culture. Cooperative breeding is an example of a social change in the evolution of cumulative culture. From the early ages of the great apes, the caretaker is most often than none, the parent, while the recipient is the offspring (Van Schaik et al., 2016, 233). However, as culture continually evolved a social change in raising infants started to emerge – this being the beginning of cooperative breeding. Zoologist, Tim Clutton-Brock defined cooperative breeding as “help given to mothers by non-breeders, that is, extensive alloparental care” (Van Schaik et al.
, 2016, 235). This increase in socially bonded group complexity from allocare relates back to the SBH argued by Dunbar and Schulz. Since Cultural intelligence is a form of social intelligence, it can be said that the beginning of alloparenting and multi-generational investment in offsprings is a method of transmitting cultural information, therefore driving the evolution of cumulative culture through channels, such as teaching. The act of educating, whether it be in the form of gestural or verbal, underlies the success of human cumulative culture by being a medium where the transmissions of information,shared skills, and innovations are passed on from one social group to another, or from one generation to the next. As the techniques of teaching improve and cultural intelligence expanded, it is seen that the two have co-evolved together over time. Teaching is deemed to be more advantageous in a general sense when it is used for broadening human cumulative culture, and the progressive comprehension of cultural intelligence is reliant on teaching mechanisms. Attributes such as shared intentionality and cooperation is vital in the success of gestural teachings.
On the other hand, scientist Thomas Morgan conducted a series of experiments which concluded that verbal teachings have proved to be the most effective practice in passing on knowledge. The investment in teaching social learning skills underlie the success of humanity by assuring high fidelity of facilitating the progression of cultural information. There is no doubt that cumulative culture is an intriguing feature that drives the evolution of humans into new heights.
The specific aspects of cumulative culture can all be related and narrowed down to the importance of social learning. With theories such as the SBH as a underpin for the concepts that are discussed, such as complex societies, cooperative breeding and shared intentionality, the string of correlation in each key element refers back to the significance of social learning and its crucial role in cumulative culture in humans. As our socially bonded groups increase in complexity along with the advancement of leading edge innovations, we are required and rely on social skills more than the past. Living in modern complex environments where cultural information, or even the term culture, is defined in all sorts of ways, and presented in various domains requires humans to have a flexible yet developed social learning skills in order to pass on such information through their social groups and onto the next generation so that the evolution of human cumulative culture may excel into further depths.