Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Some researchers have claimed that chimpanzee and human culture rest on homologous cognitive and learning mechanisms. While clearly there are some homologous mechanisms, we argue here that there are some different mechanisms at work as well. Chimpanzee cultural traditions represent behavioural biases of different populations, all within the species' existing cognitive repertoire (what we call the 'zone of latent solutions') that are generated by founder effects, individual learning and mostly product-oriented (rather than process-oriented) copying. Human culture, in contrast, has the distinctive characteristic that it accumulates modifications over time (what we call the 'ratchet effect'). This difference results from the facts that (i) human social learning is more oriented towards process than product and (ii) unique forms of human cooperation lead to active teaching, social motivations for conformity and normative sanctions against non-conformity. Together, these unique processes of social learning and cooperation lead to humans' unique form of cumulative cultural evolution.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2405-15
Number of pages11
JournalRoyal Society of London. Philosophical Transactions B. Biological Sciences
Issue number1528
Publication statusPublished - 27 Aug 2009