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Research Seminar: Social Technologies


Admission requirements

Bachelor degree (completed)


What have tellings stories around the campfire, dancing in a night club, and spending time on social platforms like Instagram or Facebook in common? This research seminar deals with the "big picture" of who we humans are as a species, where we've come from, and how our bodies and minds have co-evolved with all kinds of technologies and socio-cultural structures.

In this seminar we set out to investigate how particular “inventions” characteristic of the human lineage over the past millions of years, such as fire, tools, language, art, story-telling, dance, ritualistic behaviours, and ultimately the products of the agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions, can be viewed as social technologies extending our cognitive and communicative abilities in such a way that we could form the large and complex societies we live in today. The course’s journey will lead us from ape-like grunts and howls to the sophisticated signal of present-day language, from grooming to gossip and Instagram, from campfire settings of the paleolithic to Netflix, and from ritualistic dances to nightclubs and festivals like Lowlands or Burning Man.

Building on insights from multiple disciplines, including cognitive science, lingusitics, biology, and archaelogy, we explore the many creative ways in which evidence can be gathered about our ancestors and develop hands-on practice with computer simulations and laboratory experiments. After ten lectures (plus a movie night!) the course will culminate in the annual Social Technologies Symposium at which we all present our research-projects-in-progress, and at which we will invite an international keynote speaker of our collective choice. Previous speakers include Dr Bronwyn Tarr (Barcelona/Oxford), Dr Kit Opie (Bristol), and Prof Robin Dunbar (Oxford).

Course objectives

After successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Approach contemporary human traits and behaviours using an evolutionary framework;

  • Explain what the social-brain hypothesis is, reflect on its eplanatory power, and discuss alternatives;

  • Identify and list the many creative ways evidence can be gathered to study the origins of language and other human behavioural traits that do not fossilise;

  • Design and implement a computer model to study aspects of language/cultural evolution and evaluate/draw conclusions from computer modeling work

  • Evaluate and judge experiments that study aspects of the evolution of human behioural traits such as language, the production of art, story-telling, dance, or ritualistic behaviours, ultimately providing answers to questions such as: What are the origins of our language and communicative skills? Where do our large brains come from? What is our relationship to technology, from stone tools to smartphones? What kind of mechanisms underlie our cultural evolution? And how did we become highly social beings navigating complex social networks, online and offline?

  • Generate ideas for future studies and creative use of data in the field of human evolution.


Check MyTimetable (manual) and use your ULCN account to login. Please note that (last-minute) changes in the schedule are communicated in the course's Brightspace.

Mode of instruction

Lecture, Seminar, Excursion/Exhibition

Assessment method

Assessment takes place based on a mid-term assignment (30%) and a research project presented both at the Symposium and in written form, possibly together with alternative outputs such as a documentary or exposition (70%).

Reading list

The following book will be used as the overall theoretical backdrop (buying a hard copy is highly recommended):

Clive Gamble, John Gowlett & Robin Dunbar. 2014. Thinking Big. How The Evolution Of Social Life Shaped The Human Mind. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Additional reading, along with videos, podcasts, and other study material, will be announced via Brightspace.


  • You have to enrol for classes and exams (including retakes) in uSis.

  • Elective, external and exchange students (other than Media Technology students) need to contact the programme's coordinator due to limited capacity.


Contact the lecturer(s) for course specific questions and the programme's coordinator Barbara Visscher-van Grinsven for questions regarding the programme, admission and/or registration.