Ellen Fridland will talk on the topic ‘Do as I say and as I do: imitation, pedagogy, and cumulative culture.

7.00 p.m. at Blackwell’s bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford.


How do we account for the richness, sophistication and diversity of human culture? Several theories, which attempt to give an account of cumulative culture emphasize the importance of high-fidelity transmission mechanisms such as imitation and teaching as central to human learning (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Galef 1992; Tomasello, 1994). These high-fidelity transmission mechanisms are thought to account for the ratchet effect, that is, the capacity to inherit modified or improved knowledge and skills rather than having to develop one’s skills from the ground up via individual learning. In this capacity, imitation and teaching have been thought to occupy a special place in the explanation of cumulative culture because they are thought to both function as high-fidelity transmission mechanisms (e.g, Boyd and Richerson; 1985Galef 1992; Tomasello 1994; Richerson and Boyd 2005; Thornton and Raihani, 2008; Fogarty et al. 2011; Moore 2016).
In contrast to this standard view, I will argue that imitation and teaching are not both best construed as primarily high-fidelity transmission mechanisms. Rather, I’ll argue that though both can contribute to the high-fidelity transmission of information, imitation and teaching make two distinct contributions to cumulative culture. I will claim that imitation functions primarily as a high-fidelity transmission mechanism while teaching is primarily responsible for the innovation and creativity characteristic of cumulative culture.