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Rethinking roots of human culture

A man walks past a sign showing the evolution of man in a business district in downtown Tokyo November 17, 2008. Japan slid into its first recession in seven years in the third quarter as exports crumbled, and some analysts said an escalation in the global financial crisis may have put the economy on course for its longest ever contraction. REUTERS/Michael Caronna (JAPAN)
A man walks past a sign showing the evolution of man in a business district in downtown Tokyo November 17, 2008. Japan slid into its first recession in seven years in the third quarter as exports crumbled, and some analysts said an escalation in the global financial crisis may have put the economy on course for its longest ever contraction. REUTERS/Michael Caronna (JAPAN)

Washington: A new study has found that teaching is not essential for people to learn to make effective tools.

The University of Exeter results counter established views about how human tools and technologies come to improve from generation to generation and point to an explanation for the extraordinary success of humans as a species.

The study reveals that although teaching is useful, it is not essential for cultural progress because people can use reasoning and reverse engineering of existing items to work out how to make tools.

The capacity to improve the efficacy of tools and technologies from generation to generation, known as cumulative culture, is unique to humans and has driven our ecological success. It has enabled us to inhabit the coldest and most remote regions on Earth and even have a permanent base in space. The way in which our cumulative culture has boomed compared to other species however remains a mystery.

It had long been thought that the human capacity for cumulative culture was down to special methods of learning from others – such as teaching and imitation – that enable information to be transmitted with high fidelity.

Alex Thornton said that the study helps uncover the process of incremental improvements seen in the tools that humans have used for millennia. While a knowledgeable teacher clearly brings important advantages, this study shows that this is not a limiting factor to cultural progress. “Humans do much more than learn socially, we have the ability to think independently and use reason to develop new ways of doing things. This could be the secret to our success as a species.”

The results of the study shed light on ancient human society and help to bridge the cultural chasm between humans and other species. The researchers say that to fully understand those elements that make us different from other animals, future work should focus on the mental abilities of individuals not solely mechanisms of social learning.

The study appears in Scientific Reports. (ANI)