Evolutionary Foundations of Human Uniqueness
Eleven linked investigations of where, when, and how the human capacities for complex cognition, cumulative culture, and large-scale cooperation developed
In 2014, IHO began an ambitious research program funded by the John Templeton Foundation—a collaborative inquiry into the evolutionary foundations of human uniqueness.
Spearheaded by IHO Director William Kimbel, the $4.9 million, three-year grant, the largest of its type for human origins research, supported 11 linked investigations of where, when, and how unique human capacities for complex cognition, cumulative culture, and large-scale cooperation emerged.
The grant included $400,000 to fund a permanent state-of-the-art 2-and 3-D imaging lab at ASU and $200,000 to develop innovative new teaching and learning tools about human origins for use in primary- and secondary-school classrooms.
Overview of Research Goals
The 11 projects that form the core of this 3-year funding program from the John Templeton Foundation address a wide range of scientific questions concerning the evolutionary foundations of human uniqueness.
The goal is to explain the processes leading to the emergence of the uniquely human attributes of technology, social learning, cooperation, and language and assess their indelible impacts on the planet.
They constitute an integrated program of research on the key adaptations, time periods, and environments of human origins. Drawing on the expertise and methods from a broad range of life, earth, and social science disciplines, the research program attempts to answer questions of where, when, and how unique human behavioral and cultural capacities emerged.
A central goal of the program is to test, within the context of collaboratively constructed research, predictions from recently generated theoretical propositions about human uniqueness against the empirical evidence produced in the field and laboratory.
The research program spans more than 3 million years of evolutionary time and topics from the significance of hominin-induced bone modification in the Pliocene to how large-scale cooperative networks evolve in traditional human societies today. It comprises field research at locales in Africa, South America, and Oceania, and museum/analytical/theoretical work in Africa, Europe, and the United States.
Nine principal scientists affiliated with the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) will direct the research, but the 11 projects involve 45 external collaborators and entail 23 graduate-student years and 14 postdoctoral-scholar years of effort. This group will form a network of linked investigations characterized by close interaction among research approaches and integration of the resulting data into a coherent explanation of human uniqueness. In addition to a wide range of highly visible scholarly outputs and a final public symposium, we expect approximately half a dozen PhD projects to be seeded by the initial investments in the proposed research.
This program strongly leverages ongoing, externally funded field and analytical projects in human origins science that have formed the core of the IHO agenda for more than three decades.The organization of the research differs from the traditional model because we bring together leading researchers from disparate scientific approaches under a unifying evolutionary anthropological approach to human origins. This unifying principle enables us to integrate fields as methodologically distinct as paleoclimatic modeling and ethnography in the design, execution, and evaluation of research and the synthesis of results. The 11 thematically linked projects form a potent combination of new discovery through field research, cutting-edge analytical methods, and extended, up-close studies of living human societies. Bridging disciplines that in many institutions still inhabit formally secluded academic structures, the research, to be conducted under the umbrella of a single research institute and its international network of collaborators, is designed to shed new transdisciplinary light on the evolutionary foundations of human uniqueness.
Humans experience their lives within a world of extraordinary cognitive complexity.
Modern humans view and communicate the nature of their surroundings and experiences through an intricate symbolic structure made possible by a complex, energetically expensive brain. The increasing size and complexity of the brain through time had enormous implications for anatomy, physiology, nutrition, life-history, and the sum total of knowledge that could be accumulated and communicated, including complex technology and far-reaching social networks. The fossil and archaeological records provide the best empirical records for the timing and pace of cognitive evolution.
Cultural accumulation allows humans to rapidly adapt to a wide range of changing environments using highly refined knowledge and tools.
Most organisms adapt to their environment through a combination of genetic evolution and individual learning. Genetic evolution has favored many types of highly refined behaviors and complicated artifacts in nonhuman species, but these adaptations are employed by all individuals of the species throughout its range.
Human cultural accumulation radically amplifies the complexity of adaptations because people can learn from others. Social learning allows human populations to gradually accumulate knowledge about their environments and develop specialized artifacts that are progressively more adapted to local conditions. The ability to learn from others allows humans to create and replicate tools and artifacts that are far too complicated for individuals to invent on their own.
Humans cooperate more extensively than any other vertebrate species.
Division of labor, trade, and public works are common in human societies. The sick, hungry, and disabled are cared for, and social life is regulated by commonly held moral systems enforced, albeit imperfectly, by third-party sanctions.
These features collectively increase the efficiency of human foraging and created the foundation of group-level cooperation. In life-history terms, they favor the evolution of a short inter-birth interval, a long period of juvenile dependency, care for multiple dependent young and long life expectancy. Only humans have this unique combination of features. In other vertebrate species, cooperation is limited to relatively small groups of relatives and there is little division of labor or trade, and no large-scale conflict.