The Encultured Primate: Thresholds and Transitions in Hominin Cultural Evolution

Philosophies 4 (1):6-0 (2019)
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Abstract

This article tries to shed light on the mystery of human culture. Human beings are the only extant species with cumulative, evolving cultures. Many animal species do have cultural traditions in the form of socially transmitted practices but they typically lack cumulative culture. Why is that? This discrepancy between humans and animals is even more puzzling if one realizes that culture seems highly advantageous. Thanks to their accumulated knowledge and techniques our early ancestors were able to leave their cradle in Africa and swarm out across the planet, thereby adjusting themselves to a whole range of new environments. Without culture this would have been impossible. So we may ask once again: if cumulative culture is so useful, why don’t other animals have it? In order to explain this mystery I won’t appeal to the major transitions in human evolution—like walking upright, crafting stone tools and controlling fire, etc.—because that would be question begging. Instead I try to unearth the mechanisms that caused those evolutionary turning points to occur in the first place. It seems that unlike other animals, humans are predisposed to efficiently acquire, store and transmit cultural information in such ways that our cultures can genuinely evolve.

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