A Project of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation

Cumulative culture and future thinking: Is mental time travel a prerequisite to cumulative cultural evolution?

Published: November, 2012

Investigator(s): Other Investigator(s)

Researcher(s): R Vale, G. L., Flynn, E. G., & Kendal, R. L.


Cumulative culture denotes the, arguably, human capacity to build on the cultural behaviors of one's predecessors, allowing increases in cultural complexity to occur such that many of our cultural artifacts, products and technologies have progressed beyond what a single individual could invent alone. This process of cumulative cultural evolution underlies human cultural success and has enabled us to reach and inhabit some of the most inhospitable environments on this planet. Why humans, but not other animals, have exhibited a cultural explosion has caused much deliberation. The human propensity to imitate, teach, “mind-read” and cooperate have all featured prominently in accounts of the prerequisites for cumulative culture. However, this may not represent the complete picture. In this article we consider whether there exists a link between future thinking, specifically prospective mental time travel, and the observed distribution of cumulative culture.

JTF grant funded: No