University of California at Los Angeles doctoral student Michelle Kline, with the guidance of Dr. Robert T. Boyd, will undertake research to test predictions of the hypothesis that cumulative cultural evolution is integral to human adaptation, and that humans possess unique social learning capacities that have coevolved with culture. The research will produce the most extensive existing data set on cultural transmission outside the laboratory. The research is important both to cultural evolutionary theory and to more general understanding of how human beings learn.
Kline's project has four aims: (1) test whether subtle teaching is important to social learning in a small-scale society; (2) measure within-group variation in knowledge relevant to adaptive skills; (3) test whether theorized learning biases generate adaptive behavior outside the laboratory; and (4) measure patterns of social interaction to infer the geometry of cultural information networks. She will carry out the research in villages on Yasawa Island, Fiji. Each village is about 100 people, who subsist mainly on fishing and horticulture. Political units are composed of interrelated clans, a council of elders, and a hereditary chief. There are no local markets, broadcast television, automobiles, or public utilities here. Since face-to-face societies like this one are more similar to the environments to which the human mind first evolved, this is an ideal setting for this study. The Co-PI will collect data using mixed methodology, including focal follows, structured interviews, and video-recorded observation and video-assisted interviews.
Findings from this research will be significant for the study of human origins, because culture is a major source of human adaptability, and because interpreting the early hominin archaeological record accurately requires empirically verified theory about how cultural transmission creates patterns of cultural variation. Findings will also be of interest to researchers in the fields of education. The project will train a graduate student and will train a female Fijian research assistant.
This project sought to shed light on the role and prevalence of teaching in non-western societies, and on how social learning processes affect cultural variation. I was also interested in the health outcomes linked to variation in culturally acquired knowledge. I completed all planned data collection in three villages, and are presently analyzing the data. Based on preliminary analyses, I can report several general findings. First, teaching was more prevalent than has been previously documented in the anthropological literature, and was more commonly performed by parents and grandparents, as compared to others. I was able to document that while easy tasks are typically learned early in life from parents or grandparents, more difficult tasks are learned later in life from experts or other non-family members. This is consistent with the two-stage theory of life history, and provides new evidence on the importance of learning from non-kin. Finally, I found that there is a high level of variation in womens' knowledge about food, nutrition, and health, even within samples of around 70 women per village. There was also a high level of agreement about who other women perceived as most knowledgeable on particular topics, and to whom they would go with any questions. This suggests that our future analyses may reveal how it is that social networks disemminate or preserve cultural knowledge.