Imitation is often seen as one of the crucial foundations of culture because it is the basis of social learning and social transmission. Only by imitating others and learning from them did human culture become cumulative, allowing humans to build and improve on the knowledge of previous generations. Thus, it may be one of the key cognitive specializations that sparked the success of the human evolutionary story:
Much of the success of our species rests on our ability to learn from others’ actions. From the simplest preverbal communication to the most complex adult expertise, a remarkable proportion of our abilities are learned by imitating those around us. Imitation is a critical part of what makes us cognitively human and generally constitutes a significant advantage over our primate relatives (Lyons et al. 2007: 19751).
Indeed, there have been some interesting experiments suggesting that the human capacity -and, above all, motivation – for imitation is an important characteristic that separates us from the other great apes.
In a series of intriguing experiments by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Derek Lyons and his colleagues from Yale University, young wild-born chimpanzees and Children aged 3 to 4 were shown how to get a little toy turtle/ a reward out of a puzzle box. In the first condition of the experiment the puzzle box was transparent, whereas in the second condition the puzzle box was opaque.
And here’s the catch: both chimpanzees and children were not shown the ‘right’ or ‘simple’ solution to how to get the reward but one that was actually more complicated and involved unnecessary steps.
Continue reading “Imitation and Social Cognition in Humans and Chimpanzees (I): Imitation, Overimitation, and Conformity”
Cultural differences are often attributed to events far removed from genetics. The basis for this belief is often based on the assertion that if you take an individual, at birth, from one society and implant them in another, then they will generally grow up to become well-adjusted to their adopted culture. Whilst this is more than likely true, even if there may be certain cultural features that may disagree with someone of a different ethnic background (e.g. degrees of alcohol tolerance), the situation is not as clear cut as certain political factions may have you believe. Yet, largely due to studies on gene-culture coevolution, we are now starting to understand the complex dynamics through which genes and culture interact.
First, a particular culture may exert selection pressures on genes that provide an advantageous benefit to the adoption of a particular cultural trait. This is evident in the strong selection of the lactose-tolerance allele due to the spread of dairy farming. Second, pre-existing gene distributions provide pressures through which culture adapts. Off the top of my head, one proposed example of this is a paper by Dediu and Ladd (2007), which looked at how the distribution of the derived haplotypes of ASPM and Microcephalin may have subtly influenced the development of tonal languages. The paper in question, however, is looking more broadly at culture. Specifically, the authors, Baldwin May and Matthew Lieberman, examine recent genetic association studies and how within-variation of genes involved in central neurotransmitter systems are associated with differences in social sensitivity. In particular, they highlight a correlation between the relative frequencies of certain gene-variants and the relative degree of individualism or collectivism within certain populations.
Continue reading “Genetic Components and Cultural Differences: The social sensitivity hypothesis”