The Success Of Homo sapiens And Cultural Evolution

Hello everyone. This semester, I am following along with John Hawks’ free online course on Human Evolution through Coursera. It has been great so far, both in terms of the material and making it enjoyable for a general audience interested in the science of human origins and evolution. I would definitely recommend you check it out next time it rolls around.

Anyway, there is a discussion forum as part of the course, with a wealth of topics contributed by the many people around the world that are enrolled in the course. Unfortunately, if you’re not enrolled, the forums are not publicly available. So, I thought I would bring one conversation to you. This is a snippet of a broader conversation on the evolution of culture and the success of humans as a species. The posts are completely unedited, aside from a couple additional links added to my own posts, as I didn’t want to risk distorting someone’s meaning by making changes in grammar or spelling. Names have been abbreviated to leave participants anonymous, in case they prefer to be so outside of the class environment.

I hope you enjoy reading our discussion! I go through a number of topics relevant to cultural evolution in humans and non-human animals. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments below!

Now We Must Redefine "Man"

Hello everyone. I popped in to share something with you: a beautifully animated video that presents, in an entertaining and engaging way, the story of the beginning of the “animal culture wars” (McGrew 2003, 2009) and cultural traditions in chimpanzees (Whiten et al. 1999). This video emphasizes our similarities with other primates but I, and many other scientists interested in animal culture, would extend this well beyond primates to many other social animals. Take a look and see what you think!

You can also check out two related articles from the blog of The Advanced Apes, the folks behind the video: “The Real Culture Wars” and “The Century of Great Ape Culture.” Enjoy, and feel free to discuss your thoughts in the comments.



McGrew, W. C. 2003. Ten dispatches from the chimpanzee culture wars. In: Animal social complexity: Intelligence, culture, and individualized societies (Ed. by F. B. M. de Waal & P. L. Tyack), pp. 419–439.
McGrew, W. C. 2009. Ten dispatches from the chimpanzee culture wars, plus postscript (revisiting the battlefronts). In: The question of animal culture (Ed. by K. N. Laland & B. G. Galef), pp. 41–69.
Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W. C., Nishida, T., Reynoldsk, V., Sugiyama, Y., Tutin, C. E. G., Wrangham, R. W. & Boesch, C. 1999. Cultures in chimpanzees. Nature, 399, 682–685.

Image credit: The Advanced Apes

Bomoi Na Zamba: From Suburbia To Salonga

[Editor’s Note: “Bomoi na Zamba” means “Life in the Forest” in Lingala, the local language where Sean is currently doing his field work. Enjoy the first post in his new series, and the first CultEvol post after our long summer hiatus for field work. Expect more posts soon. –REWB]

So I’m sitting in my parents’ two-and-a-half bathroom home typing away on my laptop, trying to get this field blog started, when I notice my battery is about to run out. I plug it in without another thought. I begin to pour an electronically brewed cup of coffee, but hear a strange beeping noise upstairs—oh, right, laundry’s done, better go throw it in the dryer. On the way back down to my computer I notice a sixteen-wheel moving truck out of the window. “Cool, the new neighbors,” I thought. Not certain, but I vaguely remember them mentioning they are newlywed. No kids. Briefly, I ponder how two people could possibly have that much stuff. At the same time I flip on the flat screen and conclude that the divan is much more comfortable for blogging than either the sofa or loveseat. “Too bad I won’t get to know the new neighbors very well,” I continued to think. In just over a week, I’ll be on my way back to LuiKotale, a remote primate research camp located just outside Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, far from the modern renditions of neighborly hospitality and Energy Star appliances.

The Question Of Znurg'naq

Courtesy of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:


Have you ever noticed when you’re in a packed room and looking for someone you know, how easy it is to actually find them? For rats, the same is true for finding things to eat. They are expert foragers and, because of human activity, are an invasive species in many areas of the world with a devastating impact on ground-dwelling competitors and prey. When populations dwindle, conservation efforts seek to protect these vulnerable species with captive breeding programs, predator avoidance training, and subsequent reintroduction to the wild (Griffin, Blumstein & Evans 2000; Blumstein 2012). On the flip side, by combining what we know about natural animal behavior with practical conservation management strategies, the field of conservation behavior can effectively alter the foraging behavior of predators to further increase chances for survival. Australian scientists Catherine Price and Peter Banks use learning-by-association in rats to reduce detection of naïve ground-nesting bird prey (2012). Publishing a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they capitalize on rapid learning in the black rat (Rattus rattus), and suggest a new way to increase management success through nonlethal means.

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