Scots study to compare human and primate learning

Chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo. A five-year project will compare the cognitive processes of primates and humans during learning. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo. A five-year project will compare the cognitive processes of primates and humans during learning. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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PRIMATE experts at a Scottish university have won a £1.28 million grant to look into the “uniqueness” of human culture, compared to that of chimpanzees, capuchins and squirrel monkeys.

Stirling University psychologist Dr Christine Caldwell has secured the funding, from the European Research Council (ERC) funding, for a five-year project which will compare the ways in which humans and other primates pick up skills and knowledge from other individuals.

This is an important question, because it has implications for a wide range of academic fields far beyond psychology. The project has the potential to inform this major evolutionary puzzle

Dr Christine Caldwell

It will involve human children aged 18 months to six years, adult humans, plus chimpanzees, capuchins and squirrel monkeys of varying ages taking part in cognitive tasks.

The non-human participants are based a research facility in Edinburgh Zoo.

Dr Caldwell, a senior lecturer in the School of Natural Sciences at Stirling, said: “In human populations, skills and knowledge accumulate over generations.

“This results in behaviours and technologies - from mobile phones to the Large Hadron Collider - far more complex than any single individual could achieve alone.

“The ratchet-like property of human culture appears to be absent in other species.

“Among those such as chimpanzees, many behaviours are socially transmitted, but they do not seem to increase in complexity over time in the way that human behaviours do.

“Currently we don’t fully understand why this is, but my research will aim to compare the cognitive processes of humans and other primates, as well as studying the development of capacities for cumulative culture in young children, in order to shed light on this intriguing difference between ourselves and other species.

“This is an important question, because it has implications for a wide range of academic fields far beyond psychology. The project has the potential to inform this major evolutionary puzzle.”

The project, codenamed RATCHETCOG, will start in September and will involver five scientists in all. Dr Caldwell will be working with two post-doctoral research assistants, and in addition, from year two, four PHD students.

Stirling University principal Professor Gerry McCormac said: “Dr Christine Caldwell of Stirling’s renowned Psychology Division is to be congratulated on her outstanding success in achieving this £1.78 million grant from the European Research Council.

“The study enables a fundamental evolutionary question to be addressed, and its findings will serve as an invaluable reference point for future researchers across other disciplines.”

Dr Caldwell’s previous research has included the study of nonhuman primates and how much they learn from each other.

The award was announced by the ERC as part of a 713 million euros grant package, made to 372 scientists in pursuit of their best and most innovative ideas.

The President of the ERC, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, said: “These Consolidator Grants awarded to 372 research leaders, still in an early stage of their career, will also back some 1,500 postdocs and PhD students as team members. This is one more way in which the ERC is fostering the next generation of bright research talent, and thereby the human basis for Europe’s competitiveness that conditions its economic growth.”

Stirling’s Psychology research is ranked 3rd in Scotland and 18th in the UK in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework.

The British Psychological Society’s most recent accreditation review describes Stirling as being “at the forefront of the student-led teaching experience~ in psychology across the UK.

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