What makes us human? Biology, cognition and population - lectures by Richard Walker
What makes us human?
Biology, cognition and population
A series of public lectures by Richard Walker
March 28: Human evolution and biology (5-6:30 pm, Faura AVR)
March 30: Human evolution, human cognition and human culture (5-6:30 pm, SEC C 201)
April 4: Human evolution and human populations (5-6:30 pm, SEC C 201)
Humans have existed for just 200,000 years – 0.005% of the history of life on earth. Yet in this short time they have colonized nearly every ecological niche on the planet. What is the secret of this extraordinary success? For decades, scientists traced it to allegedly unique capabilities of the human brain and of human cognition. But today we know those capabilities are not unique. In fact, the human brain looks like a scaled up version of the chimpanzee brain and there is practically no human capability that is not present in other animals, at least in elementary form. More recent theorists have explained humans’ success by a unique capacity for “cumulative cultural evolution”. Unlike other animals, it is claimed, humans can learn from each other and use each other’s ideas and inventions as building blocks for their own innovations. Humans, unlike other animals, can improve their skills without changing their biology. This is undoubtedly true, but there are aspects of human evolution it cannot explain. For example, if all humans have the same capability for culture, how is it, that areas of the world have developed more complex cultures than others? In recent years, anthropologists have developed new theories suggesting that the emergence of human culture depends on the unique size and structure of, human populations. Here, I explore these competing theories, and present my own research on the “epidemiology” of human culture.
Richard Walker is a staff scientist in the Blue Brain Project – a large scale neuroscience project, hosted by EPFL Switzerland, whose goal is to build biologically detailed simulations of the rat brain and ultimately the human brain. His research focuses on computer models of the relationship between the brain, culture and human evolution. In previous work, he led the writing of the winning research proposal, which led to the creation of the Human Brain Project – a 1 billion euro FET Flagship Program in which the Blue Brain Project is a leading partner, and was for a long time the project’s public spokesperson.
Lectures are free of charge.