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Teaching Is Not The Only Mechanism For Humans’ Cultural Progress

Researchers from the University of Exeter have recently challenged the important position of teaching in the history of humans: their findings indicate that the making of improved tools over time does not depend entirely on teaching. Rather, while having a teacher is useful, it is not a limiting factor to cultural progress, because humans can also rely on their power of reason. Find the paper published in Scientific Reports here.

teaching & cumulative culture

For a long time now, scientists have thought that teaching has fuelled cumulative culture, an ability unique to humans whereby achievements of future generations are improved versions of previous ones. Human culture is characterised by enhancements in complexity such that increasingly efficient tools, social frameworks, and technologies are created.  This would have been at work ever since humans came to be, and allegedly still serves our progress.

Scientific theories that attempt to explain how this works suggest that teaching and imitation lie at the core of cumulative human culture – these social learning mechanisms that have allegedly enabled humans to build up knowledge from older cultures would have thus widened the gap between humans and other species of animals. Teaching would have enabled the transmission of information from one generation to another with high fidelity. How true are these claims? Has teaching really been essential to the success of humans in this aspect?

The researchers of the new study attempted to test whether teaching really played a critical role by reproducing certain conditions thought to have existed along the human evolution timeline. Volunteers were instructed to build rice baskets from common materials. Some worked on an individual level while others operated in “transmission chain groups” that relayed information through teaching, or imitation, or by examination of the baskets constructed by members appearing before in the chain.

The findings show that teaching leads to more robust baskets. However, six attempts later, all the groups exhibit incremental improvements pertaining to the quantity of rice that could be carried by the baskets.

One of the authors, Dr Alex Thornton, explains that their findings shed light on the progression of “incremental improvements”, showing that teaching is not entirely essential: it does assist humans, but its absence does not limit cultural progress. According to him, humans have the faculty of independent thinking and reasoning to come up with new methods of doing things. He also suggests that this could explain why humans are so successful as a species.

The authors conclude that their experiments “cast doubt on the widely accepted hypothesis that imitation and teaching are fundamental prerequisites for cumulative culture”. Additionally, they encourage future research that highlight the mental capabilities of humans as individuals as opposed to social groups.


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