Dr Robert Lachlan
Location: Room 3.18, Fogg Building
Lecturer in Psychology
Phone: +44 (0)20 7882 5058
The evolution of cultural communication systems
In humans, and a disparate few groups of animals, communication systems are culturally transmitted. There is growing evidence that some of these systems, such as human speech and bird song, show deep homologies in their underlying genetics, development and neurobiology. I am interested in exploring why cultural transmission of communication signals evolves, focusing particularly on bird song as a model system. This is an inherently multidisciplinary endeavour, and has involved theoretical evolutionary analyses of the gene-culture coevolution between genes underlying development and cultural song traits; field behavioural experiments investigating why song is learned precisely; bioacoustic analysis of how constraints in song learning evolve; and evolutionary genomic analyses of the genes underlying song learning. Ultimately, I aim to tease apart the different evolutionary processes that have led to the incredibly precise cultural transmission of song that we see in many bird species.
From social learning to cultural evolution in bird song
Bird song provides possibly the most accessible model system for investigating social learning in a non-human species. My research attempts to understand how song is learned, by inference from population-level patterns of variation. In particular, I am interested in comparing the precision of learning across species and populations, and understanding how birds achieve extremely precise transmission of complex signals. Two topics of current interest are the roles of categorisation and conformity in song learning.
Acoustic signals like bird song are amenable to study due to their ability to be recorded and analysed using Fourier analysis. My research aims to take this to the next level by producing bioacoustics software that allows the rapid measurement and computational analysis of population and species-scale samples of wildlife recordings. This research has led to the development of Luscinia - a large, psychologically-inspired open source software project.
Robert is the module organiser for the Evolutionary Psychology module.