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Representations underlying social learning and cultural evolution

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Social learning is a source of behaviour for many species, but few use it as extensively as they seemingly could. In this article, I attempt to clarify our understanding of why this might be. I discuss the potential computational properties of social learning, then examine the phenomenon in nature through creating a taxonomy of the representations that might underly it. This is achieved by first producing a simplified taxonomy of the established forms of social learning, then describing the primitive capacities necessary to support them, and finally considering which of these capacities we actually have evidence for. I then discuss theoretical limits on cultural evolution, which include having sufficient information transmitted to support robust representations capable of supporting variation for evolution, and the need for limiting the extent of social conformity to avoid ecological fragility. Finally, I show how these arguments can inform several key scientific questions, including the uniqueness of human culture, the long lifespans of cultural species, and the propensity of animals to seemingly have knowledge about a phenomenon well before they will act upon it.
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Keywords: cognition; cultural evolution; imitation; memetics; social learning

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 24 March 2009

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