Niche Construction, Cumulative Culture and The Social Transmission of Expertise Special Issue: Niche Construction, Plasticity, and Inclusive Inheritance: Rethinking Human Origins with the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, Part 1

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Kim Sterelny


This paper defends the following main claims:  (i) in the discussion of cumulative culture, the importance of specific causal recipes has been overstated,and the imortance of broad-channel skills, and skills not tied to specific motor procedures has been understated; (ii) by the late Pleistocene,  and probably earlier, hominin lives depended on broad channel skills and expertise. (iii) critical skills included those requiring specific physical procedures (toolmaking, hide preparation (and the preparation and use of other soft materials) but also more cognitive skills like tracking, local natural history, navigation. (iv) As these more cognitive skills are not ied to  distinctive motor sequuencs, in-principle they cannot be learned by observing and reproducing the motor sequences of models. Even for those skills that do encompass specific physical skills, imitation of a model’s specific motor sequences is at most only one aspect of skill acquisition. The importance of imitation and other copying has been much over-stated in discussions of cumulative culture. (v) Rather than imitation or some other form of copying, the crucial cognitive capacity required for cumulative culture is the ability to integrate information streams from multiple social and physical channels. (vi) The reliable transmission of the cognitive capital of one forager generation to the next is supported by an adaptive, efficient learning niche.


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