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Learning (to learn) from others

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  • UserRichard Moore (University of Warwick)
  • ClockThursday 10 March 2022, 15:30-17:00
  • HouseZoom.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Richard Staley.

In this talk I argue that two skills identified as central to human cognitive uniqueness – pointing and imitation – may result from a common underlying cognitive shift in human or late hominin history. While they are typically argued to be the result of independent adaptations for cooperative communication and high-fidelity social learning, I will suggest that there are relatively weak grounds for thinking they derived from independent biological changes rather than a single cultural or ecological change.

I will argue that the development of both pointing comprehension and imitation likely resulted from an ecological change in our ancestral environment, which led our ancestors to look to each other, rather than to their environment, as sources of information about the world. I’ll explain why both ape emulation and pointing failure can be thought of as resulting from individualistic information gathering strategies, and sketch a scenario that would have made such strategies non-viable. I’ll also present some empirical data collected by my collaborators and I, and argue that it supports a new explanation of why great apes are typically poor at pointing comprehension – one in line with the hypothesis I develop here.

Finally I’ll argue that since both pointing and imitation have been trained with enculturation, they should not be assumed to result from biological adaptations in the hominin lineage. I’ll discuss scenarios in which adaptive explanations ought not to be our first recourse for explaining cognitive development and, with reference to studies of dog and wolf cognition, I’ll consider whether patterns of human social attention are likely to be the product of adapation.

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This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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