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Again another insightful and interesting post Neil.

But I'm a bit concerned about slavish (ie human) imitation (Although it does explain how fashion works, and how Britany Spears sells albums... I'll resist making any comment about religions here.) primarily because it doesn't sound like a good survival strategy.

Ape style imitation seems to be a better survival strategy since it imitates that which makes sense to it, and discards the chaff.

Humam imitation as you have described it seems a poor strategy, it works well as long as you are imitating someone with good methods or good innovations, poor if they are poor. It seems poor since it seems to encourage neglect of what Kant and so many others seemed to think was the source of humanities superiority over other animals (just for the record I'm unconvinced about our superiority) namely our rationality.

Finally a question about the interesting research you reference, was it comparing human and ape children, or human children and ape adults? Because if the later may this not simply represent the differences between adults and children rather than ape and human?

Hi David,

The difference between the two strategies makes sense only if we assume that there is an extended period in which we don't need to be directly concerned with survival: human kinds long childhood. Why do we have such a long period of dependency? Because we are cultural beings, and have to learn the (variable) details of a culture. Chimps have a period of dependency, but it's much shorter, and they need to be learning survival-relevant skills quickly. We rely upon cultural selection to sort out the wheat from the chaff, much higher-level processes. I think culture has now selected for much longer periods of dependency - not just 10 years, but more like 25 - because the cultural norms and techniques to be absorbed are so much more complex (not just how to make fish traps, but how to read and write, do calculus, and so on).

The experiments I have in mind are:

Nagell, K., Olguin, R.S. & Tomasello, M. (1993). Processes of social learning in the tool use of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and human children (Homo sapiens). Journal of Comparative Psychology 107:174-186.

Tomasello, M., Davis-Dasilva, M, Camak, L. & Bard, K. (1987) Observational learning of tool use by young chimpanzees. Human Evolution, 2:175-185.

Tomasello, M., Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., & Kruger, A. C. (1993) Imitative learning of actions on objects by children, chimpanzees, and enculturated chimpanzees. Child Development 64:1688-1705.

As the titles indicate, the non-human subjects are both adult and young.

I second David's comment that Neil has presented another interesting and insightful post.

I like Neil's explanation a lot. I wonder, too, if there are a variety of other functions (aside from learning) that imitation serves that may complicate the picture. For example, I suspect that imitation may play a role in parent/child bonding. Relatedly, perhaps, it plays a role in establishing or demonstrating positions of dominance and subordination. I don't know if any of these other functions support or weaken Neil's hypothesis.

One possibility (here I'm just speculating) is that imitation evolved for, say, parent-child bonding and then was exapted for cultural innovation. Adaptation for culture is something that gradually arose in our lineage: there are elements of culturality (excuse the barbarism) in our ancestors (there is learned behavior and cultural variation in orangs, chimps and even monkeys - think of potato washing monkeys), so it is likely that an exaptation, or several, explain its beginnings.

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