Being human: ASU study looks at how we began to make it

September 24, 2015

How did humans get from using stone tools to using power tools?

Not on their own, according to the results of an Arizona State University study released Thursday in the journal Nature Communications. Stone axe/hammer from Slovenia Leaps forward in tools — such as this stone axe/hammer from Slovenia — are an example of how humans learn things from others that we couldn’t learn on our own. Photo by: Wikipedia Commons Download Full Image

While the occasional Edison or Einstein can produce a dramatic innovation in one fell swoop, the experiment found that groups of people can create things more complex than a single individual can in the same amount of time.

Technology has allowed people to live in places to which they’re poorly suited, like the Arctic and the Sahara. However, we don’t have a good understanding of how humans produce the complex technologies that allow them to exist where they shouldn’t.

“There’s no other animal species that adapts to as wide a range of habitats as humans, and the way we do that is by learning from each other,” said Rob Boyd, co-author of the study. Boyd is Origins Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and research affiliate in the Institute of Human Origins.

“The idea is that people make gradual improvements, generation after generation, and on timescales that are long,” he said.

The study — a computer-based experiment, involving humans and learning bots — is the first demonstration of cumulative cultural evolution within the lab, said co-author Maxime Derex, a postdoctoral research associate in the Institute of Human Origins.

The experiment involved a computer game in which participants had to build virtual "totem poles" by discovering increasingly complex innovations. Some individuals solved the problem on their own, while others could observe the solutions of other members of their group. The researchers found that human reasoning plays a part in innovations, but they also found that participants with access to social information were able to create more complex artifacts than individuals.

“In this experiment, we wanted to make sure that populations of individuals are able to accumulate more information than single individuals,” Derex said.

Specialists aren’t characteristic for most of human history, according to Boyd.

“There is some division of labor with age — old men tend to sit around and give advice — but there’s not much specialization in skills,” he said. “Everybody does everything. And yet you have tons of accumulation. You get lots of fancy things that are completely beyond the learning capacity of individuals on their own without any specialization.”

One of the things that distinguish humans from other animals is that we learn stuff from other people we couldn’t learn on our own. It’s not about a single guy figuring something out and teaching everyone else. It’s more like a group of people sitting around going, “Hey, you know what worked for me on this?”

Tools are the easiest example, said Boyd. If you go back 200,000 years, you see very simple stone tools. Then, around 70,000 years ago, a burst of what the study calls “cultural complexity” occurred. Beautifully made spear points began to appear. No one knows why, Boyd said.

“We don’t really know what the transition was that allowed people to start learning from each other,” he said. “Whatever it was, that’s a good candidate for why we had this big increase in learning. … As soon as people can learn from each other in a way that allows cumulative knowledge, you can get all kinds of stuff accumulating and that allows for this efflorescence of technology.”

Scientists don’t know whether the change was in the brain or something else.

“And why did it happen there, and then?” Boyd said. “It’s not clear. It happens all the time in evolution.”

Most animals can’t learn much from each other. Humans are very good at it.

“Cultural transmission, where we learn from each other, requires a bunch of mental cognitive tools that humans have and other animals don’t seem to have,” Boyd said. “Accumulation allows populations to create things little bit by little bit.”

The study was funded by the John Templeton Foundation to the Institute of Human Origins. The $4.9 million, three-year grant, the largest of its type for human origins research, will support 11 linked investigations of where, when and how unique human capacities for complex cognition, cumulative culture, and large-scale cooperation emerged.

Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU News


ASU's Family Weekend just keeps growing

September 24, 2015

This year, ASU’s Family Weekend will mean a lot more than Mom and Dad visiting their freshman student on campus.

The annual event will include the whole Sun Devil family — transfer students, commuters and young people whose parents aren’t able to visit. ASU student and parents at Family Weekend ASU's Family Weekend allows parents to reunite with their kids in fun, communal environments filled with activities and food. Download Full Image

Arizona State University has held Family Weekend for several years, but participation has skyrocketed recently, according to Zachary Reeves-Blurton, program manager for ASU’s Family Programs office.

About 1,700 people registered for Family Weekend in 2012, and this year’s event has 6,200 signed up.

“Every year has been a record for us,” Reeves-Blurton said.

The event has become so popular that last year students whose families couldn’t attend said they still wanted to be included. So one new event this year is “Friday Fest,” which will feature competitive games, food and music on the intramural fields at the Tempe campus.

Non-traditional students might have families of their own and are less interested in the traditional football-game spirit activities. So this year’s weekend includes a family-friendly movie and kids’ games at “Memorial Union After Dark.”

Reeves-Blurton said the Family Programs office has worked with campus groups to make the event as inclusive as possible.

“Whatever description of ‘family’ you can think of, it’s represented at Family Weekend,” he said.

Here are some of the weekend’s attractions. Several colleges have their own events. For a full list of festivities, click here. For more information, call 480-965-2880.

Tempe campus

ASU Police open house
2:30-4 p.m. Sept. 25
ASU Police Department, 325 Apache Blvd., Tempe

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the station and fleet vehicles and talk to the chief. You can also meet Disney, the department’s canine who’s trained to find weapons, and learn how she keeps the ASU community safe.

Friday Fest
5-7 p.m. Sept. 25
Sun Devil Fitness Complex intramural fields, Tempe campus

Students can join their residential communities for competitive field games, food and music. Families are welcome.

Sun Devil Family Barbecue
5-7 p.m. Sept. 25
Interdisciplinary A/B Lawn, Tempe campus

A family event for graduate, transfer and commuter students, with kid-friendly games and an interactive presentation by students in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts' Theatre for Youth program.

Memorial Union After Dark
6-9 p.m. Sept. 25
Memorial Union and Hayden Mall

A family-friendly edition of MUAD, with an outdoor showing of the animated film “Big Hero 6” and kids’ activities.

Sparky’s “A” Mountain Spirit Hike
9-10 a.m. Sept. 26
Veterans Way Transit Hub

Hike to the iconic “A” on Tempe Butte, take a selfie and paint the “A” gold for the game. Meet at the Veterans Way Transit Hub before the hike up the mountain.

Signature Barbecue
4:30 p.m. Sept. 26
Tempe City Hall Patio, 31 E. Fifth St.

Enjoy a tailgate-style barbecue before heading to the stadium for the football game between ASU and USC. Registration and tickets are required, with a limited number of tickets sold at the door.

Barrett, The Honors College

Families with students in Barrett, The Honors College at the Tempe Campus can have breakfast, meet faculty and participate in a mock “Human Event” class from 8 a.m. to noon Sept. 26. Barrett families at the Downtown Phoenix campus can tour Chase Field on Friday and meet faculty afterward.

Downtown Phoenix campus

The campus' Family Field Day will feature sack races, tug-of-war and other games from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex, 350 N. First Ave., Phoenix. That will be followed by the “Devil Yell” spirit event from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Student Center, 522 N. Central Ave. Close out Friday night by watching the animated film “Inside Out” at 7 p.m. at Civic Space Park, 424 N. Central Ave.

Polytechnic campus

The Poly Engineering Car Show will showcase vehicles created by students in the ASU Chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex. That will be followed by Italian food and bocce ball from 6 to 8 p.m. At 8 p.m., families can head over to Cooley Ballrooms for an interactive murder-mystery game that includes dessert. 

West campus

The Family Fork-Out will be held 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 25 at Casa de Oro Residence Hall, followed by an 8 p.m. screening of the movie “Inside Out” in the quad.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter, ASU News