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Aug 12, 2022

Creating a Culture of Flourishing with Cristine Legare (podcast)

A conversation exploring the co-evolution of cognition and culture.

By Templeton Staff

Dr. Cristine Legare's research examines how the human mind enables us to learn, create, and transmit culture. Her studies conduct comparisons across age, culture, and species to address fundamental questions about the co-evolution of cognition and culture. For this episode of the award-winning TWCF-supported Stories of Impact podcast, Legare shares her insight into what culture is, how it's transmitted, and what's unique about human culture compared to our closest animal species relatives.

Cumulative culture

Human thought is shaped by our interactions with other people, as well as our interactions with the products of people: cultural artifacts, technologies, and repertoires of information. By building upon each other's discoveries and behaviors over time and across cultures, humans create vast systems of knowledge that we pass on to subsequent generations. The near-absence of this kind of cumulative culture in other species suggests humans are unique among animals. Legare is examining why humans have developed sophisticated technology over time, while chimpanzees — our closest primate relative — have been using and continue to use primitive tools over the same span of time.


An essential aspect of what makes us human is our social nature. Humans naturally function in societal groups. "It’s our preoccupation with others and what they know through social learning that can explain this really massive difference in content knowledge," says Legare. She also points out that as part of society, humans have bodies of accumulated cultural knowledge stored in books, computers, and oral traditions. While chimps have roughly the same technological repertoire that they’ve had for thousands of years, human children are using iPhones. Legare offers this as an illumination: "What [human] children have is a repertoire of cultural learning strategies. Children learn through observation, by watching others in their environment...They also learn because other people in their environment — their parents, their teachers — teach them. They have a whole repertoire of processes that they use to learn culture. They have a very flexible and powerful toolkit of learning strategies at their disposal."


Humans' drive to learn is unmatched by any other species. "We’re characteristically curious," says Legare. "We learn not just because we have a particular problem to solve — although that of course does drive our curiosity. But also because we’re interested in discovery." Humans are surprised by inconsistency, and use that curiosity as an impetus to explore and expand. "We have a tremendous appetite for understanding more, for learning more, for innovating, and developing better ways of doing things that is just uncharacteristic of any other animal species."


Humans are characteristically curious. We learn not just because we have a particular problem to solve, but because we’re interested in discovery.


Global culture & flourishing

"Channeling cumulative cultural intelligence to uphold systems that support equality and justice is no easy task," points out host Tavia Gilbert. Legare agrees, but is optimistic: "We’re at a point in human history where we’re creating global culture. And going forward, this process of the global citizen should be more inclusive. It should include and pull from the tremendous strength of cultural diversity. The fact that human culture is more diverse than culture in any other animal species by far is our greatest strength. Pulling from a vast repertoire of technological tool kits, systems of knowledge, languages, diversity of thought — the more we have to pull from, the better our solutions will be, the better our outcomes will be." Humanity may not be there yet, but Legare feels these are exciting times that can propel humanity in the direction of flourishing: "Never before in the history of the planet have we ever even had this conversation, what a global citizen would be...we are increasingly interconnected. We are also increasingly required to work together to tackle problems, everything from climate change to pandemics. The construction of a global human citizen is a work in progress, and will require increasing inclusively, tolerance for diversity, tolerance for working together, to harness the very best of human culture, to innovate."

Learn more about the TWCF-funded research project related to this episode.

Listen to the podcast with the above player.

Read the transcript from the interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay, presented by writer/producer Tavia Gilbert, which featuresCristine Legare, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Applied Cognitive Science at The University of Texas at Austin.

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and host Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.