The 2020-21 Cognitive Science Speaker Series will focus on culture and cognition

Chimp in the forest
featured image for the cognitive speaker series

The theme of the 2020-2021 Cognitive Science Seminar Series is Culture and Cognition, bringing a focus on the roles that culture may play in developing cognitive abilities such as technology creation, theory of mind, language, and norms. The first talk takes place on Sept. 30 from 12:30 to 2:30 and features Dr. Thibaud Gruber, who is Senior Researcher at the Neuroscience of Emotions and Affective Dynamics lab at the Swiss Institute for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva. Gruber, who has spent many years studying chimpanzees in Uganda and human children in Switzerland, will be speaking on “A Cognitive Approach to Wild Cultures.”

In his talk, Gruber will explain how there is no long any debate about whether chimpanzees have culture or not. The current question is about how chimpanzee cultures compare to human cultures, and the evolutionary relatedness between the two phenomena. Using the results of his research on tool use with the Sonso chimpanzee community of Budongo Forest, Uganda, Gruber will show how the interaction between social and ecological mechanisms is crucial. The Sonso chimpanzees, who have a leaf-based culture, have proven surprisingly reluctant to learn stick use, a behaviour long classified as a universal in chimpanzees. More recent results on the development of a novel tool use behaviour, moss-sponging, suggest that chimpanzees expand their cultural repertoire given what they know already rather than through brand new innovations. The emerging picture is that ecological reasons, particularly through their impact on energy balance, can trigger the appearance of novel cultural behaviour, which will then be transmitted through social learning processes.

Gruber defends a cognitive level explanation of these patterns of cultural learning in chimpanzees, according to which apes are limited in their ability to represent their cultural knowledge. This is in stark contrast with modern humans, who demonstrate great facility in representing cultural knowledge from an early age. Appealing to his current research with children, Gruber proposes that the difference between human and chimpanzee culture can be explained at least partially by the difference in the emotional lives of humans and chimpanzees.

The Cognitive Science seminar has been a popular event for York’s Cognitive Science community since 2009, typically bringing together students and faculty members from across the campus to share lunch and discuss the work of local researchers and visitors from around the world. This year all talks will be via Zoom—sorry no lunch! Contact Seminar Series co-coordinator Professor Kristin Andrews at for a link prior to the talk. All talks are free and open to the public.

This fall, the upcoming events include talks by Professor Cecilia Heyes of All Souls College and Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, who will speak on Oct. 7 with a talk titled “Cultural Evolutionary Psychology”; Professor Cristina Bicchieri from the Department of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania, who will speak on Nov. 4 on “Social Inferences and Norm Nudging”; and Professor Natalie Brito from the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University, whose talk on Nov. 18 is titled “Early Bilingual Experience and Neurocognitive Development.” All talks are on Wednesdays from 12:30-2:30.

For abstracts of these talks and a full list of speakers for the year, visit the Cognitive Science Speaker Series website.