Funding for new chimpanzee culture study

Wednesday 21 November 2001

A University of St Andrews psychologist is to conduct a large scale experimental study of cultural transmission in chimpanzees.

Professor Andrew Whiten has secured £226,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to study two sanctuaries for orphaned chimpanzees in Africa over the next four years.

To test the transmission of traditions among chimpanzees and compare it to humans, new forms of tool use and other behaviours will be established in a few individuals in each of two different chimpanzee communities. Whether and how these differences spread and whether they are maintained as traditions will be systematically studied. This is the first time such an ambitious study has been attempted.

Collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology robotics laboratory is being explored, in which MIT will provide ‘smart artificial fruits’ to be used in the chimpanzee experiments and the results of the studies will be fed back into MIT’s programme to build robots that imitate, a prospect with far- reaching implications.

Meanwhile, other research on imitation and related mental abilities is being pursued in collaboration with Professor David Perrett of the University of St Andrews and Dr Justin Williams of the Department of Child Health, University of Aberdeen. A grant of £66,000 from the Chief Scientist’s Office is supporting an exploratory study of the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate brain function during imitation in autism, which the researchers suspect lie close to the origins of the condition. A second grant of £116,000 from the PPP Medical Trust is being used in a more extended investigation of the significance of imitation in autism.

The funding news coincides with the announcement that Professor Whiten is to be awarded The Delwart International Scientific Prize for 2001 for his research on the evolution of mind and culture. Professor Whiten will receive the prize of $10,000, awarded every four years by the Delwart Foundation – established in 1989 to promote the scientific study of animal and human behaviour – under the auspices of the Académie Royale des Sciences de Belgique. The award will be made at the annual assembly of the Academy on 15 December.

Whiten is Professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Psychology in the University. A Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he was appointed one of the University’s distinguished Wardlaw Professors in 2000.

During the last ten years Professor Whiten’s research has increasingly focused on social learning (learning from others) and the evolution of traditions in humans and our nearest living relations, the primates. Young children, apes, and monkeys have been studied at different ages to understand the development of social learning, whilst comparisons between children and chimpanzees’ learning has been used to reconstruct the evolution of our cultural capacity. Whiten is famous for leading a collaboration between Jane Goodall and the world’s other leading primatologists to chart cultural variation in chimpanzee behaviours across Africa, and for innovative experiments teasing apart the underlying processes of imitation and other forms of learning.


NOTE TO EDITORS – For more information on Professor Whiten’s work, please call him direct on 01334 462073. Emailable pictures available from Claire Grainger – contact details below.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email [email protected] Ref: whitenawards/standrews/chg/21nov200 1


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