Abstract The evolution of human behavior and cognition is often studied with a combination of theory and experiment—theory is used to explore evolutionary dynamics, while laboratory experiments can compare human behavior
The evolution of human behavior and cognition is often studied with a combination of theory and experiment—theory is used to explore evolutionary dynamics, while laboratory experiments can compare human behavior against theoretical predictions. However, agent behavior is often much simpler than human psychology and so it can remain unclear whether human behavior would produce the same evolutionary dynamics observed theoretically. To address this question, I describe a new method, called “experimental evolutionary simulations”, that combines aspects of theoretical and empirical approaches by inserting large numbers of human participants into an evolutionary simulation. I use this approach to provide new data concerning the ability of human social learning to adapt to an unstable environment. Theory has identified different social learning strategies that are highly successful or unsuccessful in a changing environment. Experimental evidence suggests that human behavior is broadly consistent with many of these predictions and so it remains unclear how well a population of human learners would cope with environmental change. Across a series of experimental evolutionary simulations I find that although human behavior is broadly consistent with theoretical strategies that are successful in a changing environment, this similarity is insufficient to actually buffer human populations against environmental change. I conclude that human psychology is designed for high fidelity copying and not adapting to environmental novelties. More generally I suggest that experimental evolutionary simulations offer are an valuable complement to existing methods in the evolutionary study of mind and behavior.
Thomas Morgan is an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University. His background is in the evolution of animal social behaviors and cognition. He graduated from Cambridge with a bachelor’s in zoology in 2009, focusing on vertebrate evolution and behavioral ecology. He completed his doctorate in 2013 at the University of St. Andrews working with Kevin Laland to carry out a series of experiments testing evolutionary hypotheses about human social learning. From 2014 to 2016, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow with Tom Griffiths in the computational cognitive science lab at University of California at Berkeley where he developed a new platform for large-scale online social experiments called Dallinger. He joined the Adaptation, Behavior, Culture and Society group at Arizona State Unversity in August 2016.
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Maria Tello Ramos, Niki Khan, Nick Jones