Week 10: Boyd, Richerson & Henrich (2011) The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation

This article examines two possible answers to the question of why humans are far more geographically distributed than any other large mammal. Indeed, humans have come to occupy almost every single terrestrial habitat (with the exception of Antarctica) over the last 70ky. The two proposed hypotheses for human uniqueness in these regards are:

  • **Cognitive Niche**: Humans’ are unique because of our superior intelligence and large brains
  • Cultural Niche: Humans’ are superior because of accumulative cultural learning

The key difference between the two positions is the emphasis on the role of culture. In the former position – associated with evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker – the claim is that culture is simply a training wheel which our enlarged brains use as a specialised input. In the latter position – the cultural niche – the claim is that process of enculturation enables our species to survive in environments that no single agent could possibly manage to learn to survive in by themselves. It is this collective capacity to tackle difficult cognitive tasks over generations and incrementally refine techniques and tools that makes our species unique (this is also the position of the primatologist Michael Tomasello 1999 and philosopher Kim Sterelny 2003, 2012). In particular, Tomasello refers to this as “the ratchet effect” (1999, pp. 5-6) because it emphasises that human culture differs qualitatively to culture in other animals insofar that there is a stabilising  effect that enables the high fidelity transmission of skills and information across the generations – and in turn this enables the faithful transmission of refinements and improvements (something missing to the same extent in other animal cultures).

[**before continuing I would like to note that before Pinker adopted the term “cognitive niche” for the evolutionary psychology position in 2010, the phrase and notion had already appeared in the philosophical literature on numerous occasions (e.g. Clark 2005, Sterelny 2003). And often described positions antithetical to evolutionary psychology. I shall continue to use the term “cultural-cognitive niche” when referring to the work of Richard Menary, Sterelny and others since I do not want to entirely cede the term to the evolutionary psychologists. And I also think that the cost of the longer phrasing is offset by the value of reiterating and emphasising the conjunction of cultural-practices and cognitive capacities/systems**]

Boyd and colleagues then list a range of ethnographic and historical evidence to emphasise this point. I shall list just a few of these which I think are the most intriguing:

1. Lost European Explorers:

(I list this one merely for amusement) There are numerous cases in which European explorers travel to a novel environment, end up in some difficulties and then fail to adapt to the local conditions and subsequently die. In many cases this took place in close proximity to the local indigenous people who were thriving. Boyd and colleagues see these as natural experiments that provide an existence proof that it takes more than great-smarts or pure intelligence to make it in a novel environment. Instead, it is the accumulated cultural knowledge and our species’ special emphasis on relying on this that enables us to thrive in many different challenging environments. Henrich’s latest book The Secrets of our Success goes into greater detail on these examples. Another example mentioned by Boyd and colleagues, the infamous journey of Burke and Willis in the Northern Territories, is described in a particularly vivid account by Jared Diamond’s (1995) Guns, Germs and Steel in chapter 15 .

2. Loss of technology and practices:

This second set of natural experiments that Boyd and colleagues point to is much more troubling in regards to what it means about our species’ future. There are many cases in the historical and paleo-historical record of particular cultural groups using sophisticated tools and practices and then losing them – often for extended periods. Here, Boyd and colleagues relate the events in the Arctic (1820-1862) where a tribe of Polar Inuit in Northwest Greenland were beset by a plague that killed all of the elder members of the tribe. As a result the tribe could not hunt at certain times of years because they lacked the technologies and skills. This is believed to have lasted for several decades before they visited by another tribe who then re-taught them the vital skills for building and using certain technologies. In this time the tribe diminished in population. This example shows that when cultural knowledge is entirely limited to human bodies and not in an ‘exogram‘ format (an external memory representation) then bad accidents can create an irreversible break in Tomasello’s ratchet. Knowledge and techniques are lost and have to be reinvented. Although it might appear as if the implications of this for modern society have been mitigated against by what Merlin Donald (1991) refers to as an “exographic revolution” (viz. that we have an extraordinary degree of external memory storage throughout civilisation in many different formats), I think that such optimism betrays a historical myopia of only considering a tiny slice of our evolutionary history. The historical record is replete with many instances in which behavioural modernity arises and then drops away (see Sterelny 2012). And although Sterelny warns that we should be wary of interpreting these holes in the historical record too strongly (for instance, the absence of evidence could just be due to the degradation of that evidence rather than a genuine lack – e.g. it is difficult for wooden tools to be preserved in the archaeological record over long periods); they are still suggestive that if behavioural modernity is a cultural achievement then it is one that has been hard fought and can be easily lost for long periods.

3. The Vygotskian Intelligence Hypothesis:

This is a broad set of claims that cultural learning in humans is different to that of other species. There is a range of convergent experimental evidence supporting this claim, but the intricacies – whether this implies some domain-specific cultural learning module or whether enculturation can bootstrap itself (see week 6) – are still very much a matter of debate. Evidence includes: [i] a comparative study of social-learning task and physical task performance in which young children out perform adult chimps in the former task but not the latter (Hermann et al 2007); [ii] evidence of drastically larger amounts of spontaneous teaching and cooperation in children as opposed to other primates (Dean et al 2012); and [iii] factors such as “over-imitation” in which children will faithfully copy the behaviour of models (who are deemed to be both benign and reliable – children are very good at judging this) including movements and acts that are not crucial to the causal relations pertaining to the achievement of the task. For instance, if an adult opens a door with an elbow a child will copy this. This is in contrast to other primates who are much more likely to focus in on the task goal itself rather than the specific procedure. It is hypothesised that factors such as over-imitation facilitate the high-fidelity transmission of cultural practices. And recent work by Andrew Whiten and colleagues has showed that over-imitation is also present in adults as well.

4. Dumb smarts and the copying of non-salient features.

Perhaps the biggest point of distinction between the two hypotheses is that the evolutionary psychology position places a larger emphasis on individual smarts – and leads to the claim that individuals can overcome the difficult challenges in their environment by applying their intellect. In contrast, the cultural niche hypothesis puts forth a position which targets human hubris. It points out that in many cases humans survive in their environments not because they understand the underlying causal relations involved in the particular task they are engaging in. But rather because they have faithfully replicated a cultural practice without having a deep understanding of which particular aspects of it determine success. Boyd and colleagues give the examples of  food practices in Fiji – in which food taboos are enforced without a deeper understanding of the ‘why’. Another example comes from Ed Hutchins‘ examination of navigational practices and how the “downstream epistemic engineering” (Sterelny 2003) of the cultural-cognitive niche leads to a situation in which modern navigators can successfully manoeuvre in complex environments but lack a deep understanding of why they are successful in these regards. He quotes extensively from Taylor (1971): “Even today, of course, since the ultimate sources of time-keeping and position-finding are the heavenly bodies, the sailor must look up at the sky. But so long and so far has the chain of experts – professional astronomers, mathematicians, almanac-makers, instrument-makers and so forth – separated the ordinary man from the first-hand observation that he has ceased to think beyond the actual clock, time-signal, map calendar, or whatever it may be that ‘tells’ him what he wishes to know” (1995, p. 173). Hutchins’ point here is that the accumulation of knowledge can lead to a situation in which people do not need to think beyond the tools that they are using. I think this situation has become even more pertinent now that GPS devices are a ubiquitous feature of our cognitive-cultural niche. And there is some evidence, from Veronique Bohbot and colleagues, to suggest that their use could be related to a deployment of different cortical resources insofar as they alter navigational tasks from a reflexive one involving landmarks (correlated with neural activity in the hippocampus) to an irreflexive method involving instruction-following (correlated with neural activity in the caudate nucleus). And some have begun to speculate about the links here to memory deficits (e.g. Bohbot et al 2012; Konishi et al 2013a; Konishi et al 2013b – all articles available on Veronique Bohbot’s web-page in the link above).

And we can bring this back in a pertinent way to one of the examples discussed above – wayfinding in Inuit hunters of the Igloolik region in Northern Canada. Aporta & Higgs (2005) examined the longitudinal effects on the tribe’s cultural practices from using GPS devices. Because of the close proximity of the north pole, magnetic compasses are of limited use. Additionally, shifting landscape features, whiteouts, and the general harshness of the environment make the use of some forms of technology very limited. As such, the local people have developed intricate systems of wayfinding (techniques involving the manipulation of a range of naturefacts: e.g. wind behaviour, snowdrift patterns, animal behaviour, tidal cycles, currents, and astronomical phenomena). But although Aporta & Higgs found that GPS devices were useful in some contexts, they also led to a range of maladapted practices – especially in regards to younger members of the group overly relying on the devices and then ending up in strife. As such, the tribe took to limiting their use of GPS devices so that they supplemented their traditional practices.







Boyd et al (2011) The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. PNAS 108 (2), 10918–10925. 

Dean et al (2012) Identification of the Social and Cognitive Processes Underlying Human Cumulative Culture. Science, 335, 1114-1118

Donald, M. (1991) Origins of the Modern Mind – Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hermann et al (2007) Humans Have Evolved Specialized Skills of Social Cognition: The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis. Science 317 (5843), 1360-1366.

Hutchins 1995 Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sterelny, K. (2003) Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Sterelny, K. (2012) The Evolved Apprentice: How evolution made humans unique. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tomasello, M. (1999) The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. London: Harvard University Press.


Additional links:

Here is a recent interview with Joseph Henrich discussing and promoting his recent book The Secrets of Our Success which expands on a lot of the material in this article as well as other interesting topics (such as the WEIRD phenomenon).

It is incredibly noteworthy that Boyd and Richerson have been long-term proponents of the importance of culture for the evolution of humans and other creatures. A relatively good general introduction to the history of these debates that preceded niche construction can be found at wikipedia. Here and here are a number of videos of Rob Boyd and Peter J. Richerson discussing various topics about cultural evolution.

Lastly, and in relation to the above, there was an extensive discussion in the group about how many channels of inheritance there are. The above positions advocate two (genes and environmental niche), but there is a debate in the literature as to whether there might be three (genetic, cultural, and environmental) or even four channels (genetic, epigenetic, cultural, and environmental) of inheritance. Odling-Smee (2007) has recently argued that two is sufficient and that we do not gain any explanatory purchase going beyond these (and instead introduce unnecessary complications). Downey & Lende (2012, p. 119), commentating on this debate, note that “niche” is a neutral explanatory device which does not draw a hard distinction between “environment” and “culture” so that the two can become blurred. Given that definitions of culture are pretty elusive, this seems like a sensible strategy.

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