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PhD in Anthropology (in collaboration with Psychology) Towards an understanding of cumulative culture: A developmental and comparative perspective

Hiring Organization:
Durham University (Supervisors: Dr R Kendal and Dr E Flynn)

Date Posted:

Position Description:
The question of human uniqueness is one that spurred heated debate in Darwin’s day and continues to do so today. While many claims to human uniqueness (eg. language, theory of mind) receive thorough investigation, cumulative culture (CC) or ‘ratcheting’ (the accumulation of beneficial behavioural modifications over generations1; e.g. abacus to computer) has received scant empirical attention. There are many theories as to why CC is lacking outside humans (but see 2-4); chief among these being cognitive constraints. We put arguments regarding imitation and teaching5,1,6 aside and propose a novel and interdisciplinary investigation of an alternative explanation that humans lack the accuracy of appraisal - necessary for ratcheting of behaviour - to determine whether the behaviour of another is more profitable than their own7. The ability to use this strategy of ‘copy if better’, has received theoretical attention from economists8 but little empirical exploration9. In brief, investigations would involve presenting individuals with puzzle-boxes containing a cumulative series of defences associated with rewards. Depending upon condition, we would vary reward size at defences to establish whether individuals can learn, through observation, that later defences in the series reap larger rewards, and - if able to accurately appraise - whether this motivation facilitates CC.

The student would study adult chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes, our closest living relatives), capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella, famed for their tool use) and children of varying ages. This unique combination of developmental and comparative perspectives is an exciting opportunity to investigate the extent to which, and reasons why, human and non-human primates differ in their capacity for CC and how CC is influenced by development in the rich cultural world of humans.

Applicants wishing to be considered for the studentship to commence study, in October 2009 or January 2010, should make an application to the University by Monday 10th August 2009, by completing an on-line application form at References and supporting documentation should be sent directly to the department by the above deadline. Please indicate that you are applying for the interdisciplinary PhD scholarship. Interviews will take place between 24th August and 4th September.

Candidates must have an MA/MSc in a relevant discipline (or equivalent experience or training), two good academic references and evidence of meeting the University’s competency criteria in English language. Applicants are advised to contact potential supervisors as above to discuss the research proposal.

Each award will cover tuition fees up to £3,300 per annum and provide an annual stipend of £5,000, for 3 years on a full-time basis.

Term of Appointment:
October 2009 / January 2010 - October 2012 / January 2013

Application Deadline:
10th August 2009

For further information please contact Kate Pedley, Postgraduate & Research Administrator (0191 334 1608) in the Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Dawson Building, South Road, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK.

Contact Information:
Rachel Kendal
Department of Anthropology
Durham DH1 3LE
United Kingdom


E-mail Address:

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