Human Teaching and Cumulative Cultural Evolution

Christine A. Caldwell*, Elizabeth Renner, Mark Atkinson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


Although evidence of teaching behaviour has been identified in some nonhuman species, human teaching appears to be unique in terms of both the breadth of contexts within which it is observed, and in its responsiveness to needs of the learner. Similarly, cultural evolution is observable in other species, but human cultural evolution appears strikingly distinct. This has led to speculation that the evolutionary origins of these capacities may be causally linked. Here we provide an overview of contrasting perspectives on the relationship between teaching and cultural evolution in humans, and briefly review previous research which suggests that cumulative culture (here meaning cultural evolution featuring a trend towards improving functionality) can occur without teaching. We then report the results of a novel experimental study in which we investigated how the benefits of teaching may depend on the complexity of the skill to be acquired. Participants were asked to tie knots of varying complexity. In our Teaching condition, opportunities to interact with an experienced partner aided transmission of the most complex knots, but not simpler equivalents, relative to exposure to completed products alone (End State Only condition), and also relative to information about the process of completion (Intermediate States condition). We conclude by considering the plausibility of various accounts of the evolutionary relationship between teaching and cultural evolution in humans.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)751–770
Number of pages20
JournalReview of Philosophy and Psychology
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


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