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      When the Transmission of Culture Is Child's Play

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      PLoS ONE

      Public Library of Science

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          Abstract

          Background

          Humans frequently engage in arbitrary, conventional behavior whose primary purpose is to identify with cultural in-groups. The propensity for doing so is established early in human ontogeny as children become progressively enmeshed in their own cultural milieu. This is exemplified by their habitual replication of causally redundant actions shown to them by adults. Yet children seemingly ignore such actions shown to them by peers. How then does culture get transmitted intra-generationally? Here we suggest the answer might be ‘in play’.

          Principal Findings

          Using a diffusion chain design preschoolers first watched an adult retrieve a toy from a novel apparatus using a series of actions, some of which were obviously redundant. These children could then show another child how to open the apparatus, who in turn could show a third child. When the adult modeled the actions in a playful manner they were retained down to the third child at higher rates than when the adult seeded them in a functionally oriented way.

          Conclusions

          Our results draw attention to the possibility that play might serve a critical function in the transmission of human culture by providing a mechanism for arbitrary ideas to spread between children.

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          Most cited references 53

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          Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture.

          Some researchers have claimed that chimpanzee and human culture rest on homologous cognitive and learning mechanisms. While clearly there are some homologous mechanisms, we argue here that there are some different mechanisms at work as well. Chimpanzee cultural traditions represent behavioural biases of different populations, all within the species' existing cognitive repertoire (what we call the 'zone of latent solutions') that are generated by founder effects, individual learning and mostly product-oriented (rather than process-oriented) copying. Human culture, in contrast, has the distinctive characteristic that it accumulates modifications over time (what we call the 'ratchet effect'). This difference results from the facts that (i) human social learning is more oriented towards process than product and (ii) unique forms of human cooperation lead to active teaching, social motivations for conformity and normative sanctions against non-conformity. Together, these unique processes of social learning and cooperation lead to humans' unique form of cumulative cultural evolution.
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            Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens).

            This study explored whether the tendency of chimpanzees and children to use emulation or imitation to solve a tool-using task was a response to the availability of causal information. Young wild-born chimpanzees from an African sanctuary and 3- to 4-year-old children observed a human demonstrator use a tool to retrieve a reward from a puzzle-box. The demonstration involved both causally relevant and irrelevant actions, and the box was presented in each of two conditions: opaque and clear. In the opaque condition, causal information about the effect of the tool inside the box was not available, and hence it was impossible to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant parts of the demonstration. However, in the clear condition causal information was available, and subjects could potentially determine which actions were necessary. When chimpanzees were presented with the opaque box, they reproduced both the relevant and irrelevant actions, thus imitating the overall structure of the task. When the box was presented in the clear condition they instead ignored the irrelevant actions in favour of a more efficient, emulative technique. These results suggest that emulation is the favoured strategy of chimpanzees when sufficient causal information is available. However, if such information is not available, chimpanzees are prone to employ a more comprehensive copy of an observed action. In contrast to the chimpanzees, children employed imitation to solve the task in both conditions, at the expense of efficiency. We suggest that the difference in performance of chimpanzees and children may be due to a greater susceptibility of children to cultural conventions, perhaps combined with a differential focus on the results, actions and goals of the demonstrator.
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              Emulation, imitation, over-imitation and the scope of culture for child and chimpanzee.

              We describe our recent studies of imitation and cultural transmission in chimpanzees and children, which question late twentieth-century characterizations of children as imitators, but chimpanzees as emulators. As emulation entails learning only about the results of others' actions, it has been thought to curtail any capacity to sustain cultures. Recent chimpanzee diffusion experiments have by contrast documented a significant capacity for copying local behavioural traditions. Additionally, in recent 'ghost' experiments with no model visible, chimpanzees failed to replicate the object movements on which emulation is supposed to focus. We conclude that chimpanzees rely more on imitation and have greater cultural capacities than previously acknowledged. However, we also find that they selectively apply a range of social learning processes that include emulation. Recent studies demonstrating surprisingly unselective 'over-imitation' in children suggest that children's propensity to imitate has been underestimated too. We discuss the implications of these developments for the nature of social learning and culture in the two species. Finally, our new experiments directly address cumulative cultural learning. Initial results demonstrate a relative conservatism and conformity in chimpanzees' learning, contrasting with cumulative cultural learning in young children. This difference may contribute much to the contrast in these species' capacities for cultural evolution.
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                Author and article information

                Contributors
                Role: Editor
                Journal
                PLoS One
                PLoS ONE
                plos
                plosone
                PLoS ONE
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                1932-6203
                2012
                30 March 2012
                : 7
                : 3
                Affiliations
                Early Cognitive Development Centre, School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
                Queen Mary, University of London, United Kingdom
                Author notes

                Conceived and designed the experiments: MN JC. Performed the experiments: JC JM. Analyzed the data: MN. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: MN. Wrote the paper: MN.

                Article
                PONE-D-11-23283
                10.1371/journal.pone.0034066
                3316611
                22479524
                Nielsen et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
                Page count
                Pages: 6
                Categories
                Research Article
                Medicine
                Mental Health
                Psychology
                Cognitive Psychology
                Pediatrics
                Social and Behavioral Sciences
                Anthropology
                Psychology
                Cognitive Psychology
                Sociology
                Culture

                Uncategorized

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