How Not to Find Over-Imitation in Animals

Human Development (2024)
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While more species are being identified as cultural on a regular basis, stark differences between human and animal cultures remain. Humans are more richly cultural, with group-specific practices and social norms guiding almost every element of our lives. Furthermore, human culture is seen as cumulative, cooperative, and normative, in contrast to animal cultures. One hypothesis to explain these differences is grounded in the observation that human children across cultures appear to spontaneously over-imitate silly or causally irrelevant behaviors that they observe. The few studies on over-imitation in other species are largely taken as evidence that spontaneous over-imitation is not present in other species. This leads to the over-imitation hypothesis – that the differences between human culture and animal cultures can be traced to the human unique tendency to over-imitate. In this paper, we analyze the current state of the literature on animal over-imitation and challenge the adequacy of the over-imitation hypothesis for the differences between humans and animal cultures. To make this argument, we first argue that the function of human over-imitation is norm-learning and that over-imitation, like skill-learning, should be subject to selective social learning effects. Then we review the empirical evidence against animal over-imitation and argue that these studies do not take into account the relevant variables given the normative and selective nature of over-imitation. We then analyze positive empirical evidence of over-imitation in great apes and canids from the experimental literature and conclude that the current body of evidence suggests that some canids and primates may have the capacity for over-imitation. This paper offers a methodological suggestion for how to study animal over-imitation, and a theoretical suggestion that over-imitation might be much more widely found among species. The larger implication for claims about human uniqueness suggests that if we do find widespread evidence of over-imitation across species, many of the current theories of human uniqueness that focus on human hyper-cooperation or social norms may have only identified a difference of degree, not of kind, between humans and other animals.

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