I am an interdisciplinary researcher (currently President (Past) of the Cultural Evolution Society) with overlapping interests in cultural evolution, evolutionary anthropology, comparative and developmental psychology, primatology, and animal behaviour. My focus is on cultural transmission, specifically social learning and behavioural innovation in a range of species, from fish to monkeys to humans, with a view to understanding the evolution of human culture.
In many species, even insects, individuals learn from others, enabling them to acquire information pertinent for survival (eg. finding or processing food). We also see behavioural traditions maintained over generations, and in some species, repertoires of traditions that differ between populations. Depending on your point of view you may call the latter culture.
However, nothing we see in nonhumans rivals the complexity of human culture. One of the largest differences between humans and nonhumans is cumulative cultural evolution, where for example acquired technological knowledge increases in complexity and efficiency over generations beyond that which could be invented by any one individual (eg. mobile phones or even a pencil!). If we look at the stone tools used by wild chimpanzees or capuchin monkeys we don't see much evidence that they have evolved over the generations, unlike in humans (see below example, from Basella 1988, of evolution of hammer stones through to steam hammer).
Much of my research is focussed on investigating the different learning strategies individuals employ, whether we see similar strategies in different species, and whether these differences may contribute to explaining the evolution of human culture. In order to do this I use experiments to test for forms of social learning, and innovation, in controlled conditions (eg. captive chimpanzees and children in schools) as well as more naturalistic ones (eg. wild capuchin monkeys and children visiting science centres). I also seek opportunities to apply an understanding of cultural transmission to societal issues including conservation, health and education.
Word cloud created from key words of my publications (2017)
Vale GL, Carr K, Dean LG, Kendal RL. 2016. The cultural capacity of human and nonhuman primates: Social learning, innovation, and cumulative culture. In Evolution of Nervous Systems (Non-human Primates), 2nd edition. Ed. John Kaas. Oxford: Elsevier. 3: 475-508.