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Journal Article

The cultural evolution of teaching


Brandl,  Eva       
Lise Meitner Research Group BirthRites - Cultures of Reproduction, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Max Planck Society;

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Brandl, E., Mace, R., & Heyes, C. (2023). The cultural evolution of teaching. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 5: e14. doi:10.1017/ehs.2023.14.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000D-41C6-A
Teaching is an important process of cultural transmission. Some have argued that human teaching is a cognitive instinct – a form of ‘natural cognition’ centred on mindreading, shaped by genetic evolution for the education of juveniles, and with a normative developmental trajectory driven by the unfolding of a genetically inherited predisposition to teach. Here, we argue instead that human teaching is a culturally evolved trait that exhibits characteristics of a cognitive gadget. Children learn to teach by participating in teaching interactions with socialising agents, which shape their own teaching practices. This process hijacks psychological mechanisms involved in prosociality and a range of domain-general cognitive abilities, such as reinforcement learning and executive function, but not a suite of cognitive adaptations specifically for teaching. Four lines of evidence converge on this hypothesis. The first, based on psychological experiments in industrialised societies, indicates that domain-general cognitive processes are important for teaching. The second and third lines, based on naturalistic and experimental research in small-scale societies, indicate marked cross-cultural variation in mature teaching practice and in the ontogeny of teaching among children. The fourth line indicates that teaching has been subject to cumulative cultural evolution, i.e. the gradual accumulation of functional changes across generations.