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£4M Euro grant for new studies on mental evolution

How did humans evolve?  Why did we evolve in the way that we did? And where did our extraordinary ability to construct complex thought and language come from?

These are some of the questions that will be addressed by major new studies at the University of St Andrews on the evolution of learning and language in animals.

Professor Kevin Laland and Dr Tecumseh Fitch have been awarded prestigious grants totalling four million euros from the newly formed European Research Council.

The two grants will provide jobs for up to 16 researchers and students as part of the EU initiative designed to promote ground-breaking research.  In a new series of studies the pair will look at a range of animals including primates, ravens and pigeons to gain better understanding into evolution.

Topics analysed will include social learning in fish and birds and the role of speech sounds, visual patterns and musical phrases in the lives of humans and animals.

Both academics are members of the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, a research centre set up in the University in 2003 to bring together world class scientists in St Andrews’ Schools of Psychology and Biology with shared research agendas.

Professor Kevin Laland of the School of Biology will utilise innovative experimental and mathematical methods to direct the project, “The Evolution of Culture”.  Studies will be carried out to determine the evolution and biological bases of social learning in fish, birds and humans.

He explained, “The project is expected to offer a major step forward in our understanding of human evolution, adaptation and culture and to stimulate considerable interdisciplinary exchange.”

Dr Tecumseh Fitch of the School of Psychology will examine to what extent human characteristics such as expressing oneself via visual art, music and speech are shared with other species in the study, “The syntax of mind: a comparative computational approach”.

Other questions tackled focus on species uniqueness and the “domain-specificity” of different aspects of human cognition – some of the most debated issues in cognitive science.

Dr Fitch said, “Human cognition is differentiated from that of other species by the degree to which humans can express anything that they can think (using language), express themselves via visual art, music and speech, or develop ever-improving cultural systems like technology and science.

“To what extent are these human characteristics shared with other species?  Do each of these highly-developed human attributes result from different underlying cognitive abilities, or is there some commonality underlying all of them?”

The team will work with a broad array of animals, focussing on primates such as chimpanzees and several monkey species and birds including both highly-intelligent ravens and parrots, and perceptually-acute but cognitively normal pigeons.

St Andrews has gained two of only twenty-seven ERC Advanced Grants that have been awarded across the UK.

Director of the Centre, Professor Andrew Whiten said, “St Andrews has reinforced its research reputation by gaining these prestigious grants.  For our Centre alone to gain two is quite remarkable. We are over the moon and this will really boost our studies.”

The new grants add to over £8 million previously gained by members of the Centre since its inception.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

Professor Kevin Laland is available for interview on Tel: +44 (0)1334 463568 or Email: knl1@st-andrews.ac.uk
Dr Tecumseh Fitch is available for interview on Tel: +44 (0)1334 462054 or Email: wtsf@st-andrews.ac.uk
Professor Andrew Whiten is available for interview on Tel: +44 (0)1334 462073 or Email: a.whiten@st-andrews.ac.uk

For further information on the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution visit: http://culture.st-and.ac.uk/solace

The ERC Advanced Grant Scheme
The ERC scheme is a new funding initiative designed to promote ground-breaking, high-risk research that opens new research directions. Awards are given, on the basis of intense competition, to leading European scientists renowned for the originality and significance of their research. http://erc.europa.eu/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.display&topicID=66

NOTE TO PICTURE EDITORS:
IMAGES ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE PRESS OFFICE – CONTACTS BELOW.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, Mobile: 07730 415 015 or Email: fa12@st-andrews.ac.uk
Ref: mental evolution 10/11/08
View the latest University press releases at www.st-andrews.ac.uk

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