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Culture and social cognition

Culture & Social Cognition is the relationship between human culture and human cognitive capabilities. Cultural cognitive evolution proposes that humans’ unique cognitive capacities are not solely due to biological inheritance, but are in fact due in large part to cultural transmission and evolution (Tomasello, 1999). Modern humans and great apes are separated evolutionarily by about six million years. Proponents of cultural evolution argue that this would not have been enough time for humans to develop the advanced cognitive capabilities required to create tools, language, and build societies through biological evolution. Biological evolution could not have individually produced each of these cognitive capabilities within that period of time. Instead, humans must have evolved the capacity to learn through cultural transmission (Tomasello, 1999). This provides a more plausible explanation that would fit within the given time frame. Instead of having to biologically account for each cognitive mechanism that distinguishes modern humans from previous relatives, one would only have to account for one significant biological adaptation for cultural learning. According to this view, the ability to learn through cultural transmission is what distinguishes humans from other primates (Tomasello, 1999). Cultural learning allows humans to build on existing knowledge and make collective advancements, also known as the “ratchet effect”. The ratchet effect simply refers to the way in which humans continuously add on to existing knowledge through modifications and improvements. This unique ability distinguishes humans from related primates, who do not seem to build collaborative knowledge over time. Instead, primates seem to build individual knowledge, in which the expertise of one animal is not built on by others, and does not progress across time.

Human cultural learning involves:

Cultural learning is made possible by a deep understanding of social cognition. Humans have the unique capacity to identify and relate to others and view them as intentional beings. Humans are able to understand that others have intentions, goals, desires, and beliefs. It is this deep understanding, this cognitive adaptation, that allows humans to learn from and with others through cultural transmission (Tomasello, 1999).

Primates show distinct characteristics of social cognition in comparison to mammals. Mammals are able to identify members of their species, understand basic kinships and basic social hierarchies, make predictions about others’ behavior based on emotion and movement, and engage in social learning (Tomasello, 1999). Primates, however, show a more extensive understanding of these concepts. Primates not only understand kinship and social hierarchies, but they also have an understanding of relational categories. That is, primates are able to understand social relations that extend beyond their individual interaction with others. Mammals are able to form direct relationships based on social hierarchies, but primates have an understanding of social hierarchies and relationships that extend beyond them personally. Researchers believe that this understanding of relational categories might have been the evolutionary precursor to humans’ deeper understanding of desires, beliefs, and goals underlying causal relationships, and thereby allowing humans to relate to and understand other individuals, making way for cultural evolution (Tomasello, 1999).

  • Imitation- the ability to learn by observing others
  • Instruction- the ability to learn through direct instruction
  • Collaboration- the ability to learn in cooperation with other individuals


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