New study finds that teaching is not essential for people to learn to make effective tools

November 26, 2015
Credit: Petr Kratochvil/public domain

A new study from the University of Exeter has found that teaching is not essential for people to learn to make effective tools. The results counter established views about how human tools and technologies come to improve from generation to generation and point to an explanation for the extraordinary success of humans as a species. The study reveals that although teaching is useful, it is not essential for cultural progress because people can use reasoning and reverse engineering of existing items to work out how to make tools.

The capacity to improve the efficacy of tools and technologies from generation to generation, known as cumulative culture, is unique to humans and has driven our ecological success. It has enabled us to inhabit the coldest and most remote regions on Earth and even have a permanent base in space. The way in which our cumulative culture has boomed compared to other species however remains a mystery.

It had long been thought that the human capacity for cumulative culture was down to special methods of learning from others - such as and imitation - that enable information to be transmitted with high fidelity.

To test this idea, the researchers recreated conditions encountered during human evolution by asking groups of people to build rice baskets from everyday materials. Some people made baskets alone, while others worked were in 'transmission chain' groups, where each group member could learn from the previous person in the chain either by imitating their actions, receiving teaching or simply examining the baskets made by previous participants.

Teaching produced the most robust baskets but after six attempts all groups showed incremental improvements in the amount of rice their baskets could carry.

Dr Alex Thornton from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall said: "Our study helps uncover the process of incremental improvements seen in the tools that humans have used for millennia. While a knowledgeable teacher clearly brings important advantages, our study shows that this is not a limiting factor to cultural progress. Humans do much more than learn socially, we have the ability to think independently and use reason to develop new ways of doing things. This could be the secret to our success as a species."

The results of the study shed light on ancient society and help to bridge the cultural chasm between humans and other species. The researchers say that to fully understand those elements that make us different from other animals, future work should focus on the mental abilities of individuals not solely mechanisms of social learning.

Cognitive requirements of cumulative culture: teaching is useful but not essential by Elena Zwirner and Alex Thornton is published in Scientific Reports

Explore further: First demonstration of cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory

Related Stories

Biologists trace how human innovation impacts tool evolution

November 24, 2015

Many animals exhibit learned behaviors, but humans are unique in their capacity to build on existing knowledge to make new innovations. Understanding the patterns of how new generations of tools emerged in prehistoric societies, ...

Humans and baboons share cumulative culture ability

November 6, 2014

The ability to build up knowledge over generations, called cumulative culture, has given mankind language and technology. While it was thought to be limited to humans until now, researchers from the Laboratoire de psychologie ...

New Caledonian crows show strong evidence of social learning

August 26, 2015

Among our greatest achievements as humans, some might say, is our cumulative technological culture—the tool-using acumen that is passed from one generation to the next. As the implements we use on a daily basis are modified ...

Recommended for you

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Nov 26, 2015
It would seem the idea of cumulative culture adds nothing to what is already obvious and trite that how things are done can improve across generations and occasionally not depending upon lots and lots of factors which unless research councils fund time machines we cannot know.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 26, 2015
It would seem the idea of cumulative culture adds nothing to what is already obvious and trite that how things are done can improve across generations

It doesn't. "Cumulative culture" is simply the name we give to the process of improvement upon improvement. That wasn't the point of the article.

The point was to examine how the culture accumulates, whether by individual discovery, by copying from others, or by teaching others.

The thing being examined is how some particular innovation, such as weaving a basket in some purposeful way, propagates through the population. The same way of making a basket can be taught, copied, or people can come up with the solution independently, and the previous hypothesis was that independent discovery or copying was not significant compared to teaching how to make baskets.

It has impact on things like historical artifacts, because say a certain type of say clay pot may not be unique to a particular culture.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2015
We don't have much detail, but it seems that the improvement without teaching or imitation was by a single individual making repeated attempts. So now we need to know if that improvement will continue across generations which is the real question. Maybe the journal article deals with this process but it is vital since improvements by a single individual do not make 'culture'.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2015
I guess it also depends on the complexity of the task. A rice basket is a pretty straightforward technology and many design attempts will converge on one solution.

When we go to more complicated/non-intuitive technologies then things get more interesting (e.g. building a sturdy bridge or an efficient hearth or even fashioning a sturdy piece of rope). There individually brilliant ideas can confer significant advantage when handed down the 'transmission chain' - especially if it's one of those ideas that is few and far between.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.