Experimental studies of animal social learning in the wild: Trying to untangle the mystery of human culture

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Here I discuss how studies on animal social learning may help us understand human culture. It is an evolutionary truism that complex biological adaptations always evolve from less complex but related adaptations, but occasionally evolutionary transitions lead to major biological changes whose end products are difficult to anticipate. Language-based cumulative adaptive culture in humans may represent an evolutionary transition of this type. Most of the social learning observed in animals (and even plants) may be due to mechanisms that cannot produce cumulative cultural adaptations. Likewise, much of the critical content of socially transmitted human culture seems to show no parallel in nonhuman species. Thus, with regard to the uniquely human extent and quality of culture, we are forced to ask: Are other species only a few small steps away from this transition, or do they lack multiple critical features that make us the only truly cultural species? Only future research into animal social learning can answer these questions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)319-328
Number of pages10
JournalLearning and Behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2010


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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