A question of trust

Monday 21 January 2013

How do humans and animals know who to trust?  And how did the ability to trust others develop?

Scientists at the University of St Andrews have been awarded £2.6m to probe such fundamental questions about human nature and its evolutionary origins.

The new project will be led by world-leading experts in the evolution of culture, Professors Andrew Whiten and Kevin Laland.  As part of an international collaboration, the researchers will tackle major questions surrounding the evolution of culture, moral codes and creativity.

The work is supported by the USA’s John Templeton Foundation, which funds research into ‘The Big Questions’ about humanity.

The project, ‘Exploring the Evolutionary Roots of Cultural Complexity, Creativity and Trust’, will span the next four years.

Professor Whiten, of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews, commented, “When we talk of ‘culture’ in this project, we include everything that is learned from others, from our language to our technology and social customs.

“Our cultural nature is arguably the most important characteristic that separates us from even our closest primate relatives.

“Nevertheless, we can learn much about the evolutionary roots of our cultural capacities by studying the social traditions of monkeys and apes, and that will be an important part of this project. “

The funding will allow the St Andrews team to recruit two additional lecturers, eight new postdoctoral research scientists and ten PhD students.  Together they will work alongside other colleagues in the University, as well as national and international collaborators.

The new project will use comparative studies of social learning among monkeys, apes and human children together with sophisticated statistical modelling and a diverse range of other methods.

Professor Laland, of the University’s School of Biology, added, “Our unique human ability to make cultures evolve cumulatively, building on what others achieved before us, depends on two essential elements highlighted in the project title, creativity, which produces new innovations, and trust, which guides which innovations are adopted and spread.

“We will be investigating how humans and other animals decide whom to trust as sources of cultural information and what other forms of cultural filtering are important.”


Note to Editors

The researchers are available for interview:

Andrew Whiten – [email protected] or Tel 01334-462073

Kevin Laland – [email protected] or Tel 01334-463568

Issued by the Press Office
Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Communications Manager on  +44 1334 467227/ 07900 050 103 or email [email protected]
Ref: A Question of Trust 210113
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