Primate Culture and Social Learning

Cognitive Science 24 (3):477-508 (2000)
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Abstract

The human primate is a deeply cultural species, our cognition being shaped by culture, and cultural transmission amounting to an “epidemic of mental representations” (Sperber, 1996). The architecture of this aspect of human cognition has been shaped by our evolutionary past in ways that we can now begin to discern through comparative studies of other primates. Processes of social learning (learning from others) are important for cognitive science to understand because they are cognitively complex and take many interrelated forms; they shape traditions, cultures and nonsocial aspects of cognition; and in turn they may be shaped by their cultural context. The study of primate social learning and culture has in recent years enjoyed a renaissance, providing a wealth of new findings, key aspects of which are reviewed. The focus is on cognitive issues, including learning about the consequences, sequential structure and hierarchical organization of actions; relating stored knowledge to the assimilation of new social knowledge; feedback guiding the construction of imitations; conceptual grasp of imitation; and the reciprocal relationship between social learning and culture.

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