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Claudio Tennie (Tübingen): “Apes do not culturally evolve their know-how”

18 November 2021, 12:00 pm1:30 pm

This event will take place online via Zoom. 

Everyone is welcome to join using a computer with access to the internet and Zoom. To take part just follow these instructions:

Please note that these events are routinely recorded, with the edited footage being made publicly available on our website and YouTube channel. We will only record the audio, the slides and the speaker and will not include the Q&A section. However, any question asked during the talk itself will feature in the final edit.

Abstract: Nobody could reinnovate a computer from scratch – but we can learn from “cultural ancestors” the necessary know-how on producing one. This is because humans culturally evolve their know-how. Why humans show this type of culture has been named one of the top 125 questions of our time by Science and one way to address this questions is to study the culture of our closest living relatives, the great apes. If contemporary ape culture would already be based on cultural evolution of know-how, then we may reasonably infer that the last common ancestor of humans and apes already had the necessary underlying skills of cultural transmission of know-how. However, if ape culture is not fuelled by the transmission of know-how – then this type of culture occurred later – it would then have happened only in our lineage, after the split. In my talk I will first introduce the metaphor of a photocopying machine, to delineate the logic of know-how copying, to show how to detect it – and to guard the mind against the frequent “Big Illusion” of concluding for know-how copying where this is unwarranted. Using this logic, I will then present relevant findings from human and ape experiments, computer models, meta-reviews and theoretical analyses – which all point to the (surprising) conclusion that apes do not culturally transmit their know-how. Their lack of know-how transmission condemns ape cultures to consist only of know-how that is within individual reach. While the specific mixes of said know-how differ across some ape populations (what is labelled as ape culture), when we recently compared all ape populations we detected that ape know-how simply repeats in the absence of any cultural connections – exactly as is predicted by the claim that apes do not copy their know-how.


Claudio Tennie is a researcher at the University of Tübingen, his research focuses on the processes and preconditions of cumulative culture. In addition, he studies the underlying reasons as for why chimpanzees hunt in groups as well as reputation-based cooperation. He is currently Project Leader for the ERC-funded STONECULT project.


18 November 2021
12:00 pm – 1:30 pm
Event Category:




Online via Zoom