Humans Innovate from Social Information, But Chimps Don’t

How social learning and innovation form the evolutionary basis for education

Humans may be known for what we do best – culture. Our ability to observe, imitate, and innovate from social others is foundational to the evolution of our culture, which is a constant and dynamic process.

Other animals have what we consider culture, too: norms and behaviors that are unique to specific social groups of animals. We observe these animal cultures among many highly social species such as chimps using specific tools to acquire food, and among dolphins using sea sponges as foraging tools. Yet human culture seems to be orders of magnitude more complex. The question is, why?

A recent study with chimpanzees published in the journal, Evolution and Human Behavior, points to at least one possible reason why human culture is more complex than what we’ve so far observed in chimpanzees. The answer? Humans innovate and expand on what their peers do whereas chimpanzees don’t.


In this recent study, Vale and colleagues enlisted 53 chimpanzees from the National Center for Chimpanzee Care (NCCC) to work with a puzzle box in order to receive a food reward. The puzzle box (an apparatus with various levers and mechanisms that need to be maneuvered with the hands or with tools to open and access the reward; see below) was designed to require increasing complexity of maneuvers for the subject to retrieve an increasingly desirable food reward (the most desired food was the most difficult to obtain). The hardest level would require chimpanzees to create a tool from provided parts to retrieve the reward. Put differently, the researchers devised a situation that allowed chimpanzees to innovate new tools.

The study added another layer to understand whether chimpanzees would learn and innovate on their peer’s tools to get the prized food reward — a big, juicy strawberry — more quickly and easily. The asocial condition had chimps work through the puzzle box independently. In the social condition, however, various separate groups of chimpanzees were able to observe their peers successfully obtaining their reward from the puzzle box. The key was to see whether chimpanzees that observed successful extractions copied and innovated on their peer’s strategy.

Results showed that chimpanzees are independently innovative, producing 140 independent inventions during the study. But what about social innovation? Just 27, or 19% of inventions were copied by those who had witnessed the invention in a peer, but unfortunately, the novel inventions didn’t spread within the groups; chimps weren’t innovating and expanding upon other’s inventions. Put differently, the culture was not cumulative within the social groups.

This lack of innovation inhibits the defining characteristic of human culture – that it is cumulative, building on others’ innovations allow for rapid acceleration of knowledge. Cumulative cultural evolution is foundational to human society as we know it. Taking what your friend did, and expanding on that work, is what allows for rapid acceleration of tools, processes, and technologies. It is also a key evolutionary mechanism that allows for the modern education system as we know it to be possible.

Think back to any of your introductory courses in college. What was your experience? Likely some variation of a broad “survey” of key facts, theories, and concepts that your professors need you to know to grant you permission to go on to subsequent, more difficult and complex courses. Cumulative cultural evolution allows for this approach. Imagine entering an Introductory Physics course and rather than learning about gravity from others before you, you had to figure it our all over again on your own – every single one of you. In essence, physics would not advance; we wouldn’t get anywhere, our knowledge could not accumulate.

When I teach adult learners returning back to school after a decade or more since being in the classroom, they commonly share the experience that their past courses a decade or two ago contained a lot less information than their current college courses – and they’re probably right. Scientific knowledge advances at seemingly accelerating rates of innovation. Innovation that would be impossible if we were not highly skilled social learners. Everyday, we benefit from the innovations of our ancestors, and then enough of us innovate on those, and then pass them along to others, and so on.

Social innovation affords cumulative culture, and within that culture we have our educational institutions that rely on cumulative culture to teach students. We take an enormous amount of knowledge for granted today, but in a way, that’s just how it works. There is benefit for scholars and academics to have deep historical knowledge of particular topic areas, but we could not possibly have the time to dig into the cultural and knowledge history of every piece of tech we use or concepts we apply.

Without cumulative culture, social imitation and innovation, human society as we know it would not exist, and our educational institutions could not exist. Exploring the implications of this thesis will follow through subsequent posts at evolvED.

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