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Ferrario Chiara E. | Writing-Up Fellow
2015-10-01 - 2016-03-31 | Research area: Cognition and Sociality
The Role of Imitation in Hominid Evolution: Time for a Reappraisal
Both humans and nonhuman animals have culture, but human culture is different in fundamental ways. Human culture has often been characterized as “cumulative” for its peculiar tendency to accumulate modifications in a seemingly irreversible manner over time (a property that we all exploit “standing on the shoulders of giants” with Google Scholar). Complex adaptations such as language, institutions, art, religions, but also technology and science, from its simplest (think stone artifacts or ancient trigonometry) to most complex forms (think spacecrafts or quantum theory), can be explained by the extraordinary human capacity to faithfully transmit progressive achievements through generations. New additions serve as platforms for further improvements, so that complexity increases steadily. The so-called ratchet hypothesis intriguingly suggests that this process might be due to the special high-fidelity properties of imitation, a social learning mechanism exclusively found in humans - so the argument went. This scenario has undergone in recent years a series of challenges, perhaps the most relevant being the extent to which imitative capacities have been retrieved in nonhuman animals. Nonetheless, it continues to exert a singular influence on the field of cultural evolution. In my work, I look at how new evidence and methodology recently emerged in cultural evolution and social learning studies can be put at work to offer a meaningful re-evaluation of the “ratchet argument”.