The evolution of skilled imitative learning: a social attention hypothesis

In Carlotta Pavese & Ellen Fridland (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of skill and expertise. pp. 394-408 (2020)
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Humans are uncontroversially better than other species at learning from their peers. A key example of this is imitation, the ability to reproduce both the means and ends of others’ behaviours. Imitation is critical to the acquisition of a number of uniquely human cultural and cognitive traits. However, while authors largely agree on the importance of imitation, they disagree about the origins of imitation in humans. Some argue that imitation is an adaptation, connected to the ‘Mirror Neuron System’ that evolved to facilitate action understanding and the learning of social behaviours. Others argue that imitation is a cultural practice learned in childhood, and that there is no evidence that it evolved genetically. We offer a third alternative that is consistent with both data that the human brain is optimised for imitation, and consistent with its being substantially learned. We hypothesise that at some point in human history humans underwent natural selection for two imitation-relevant abilities – specifically, (i) the tendency to be more attentive to our peers, and (ii) fine motor skill in the manual and oro-facial domains. These changes enabled us to excel at both learning to imitate, and learning by imitating.
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