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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.

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Exhibited by University of St Andrews; University of Cambridge; University of Edinburgh; University of Stirlin.

See all exhibits from 2010