Animal Cognition

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 201–212

A critical review of the “enculturation hypothesis”: the effects of human rearing on great ape social cognition


DOI: 10.1007/s10071-004-0210-6

Cite this article as:
Bering, J.M. Anim Cogn (2004) 7: 201. doi:10.1007/s10071-004-0210-6


Numerous investigators have argued that early ontogenetic immersion in sociocultural environments facilitates cognitive developmental change in human-reared great apes more characteristic of Homo sapiens than of their own species. Such revamping of core, species-typical psychological systems might be manifest, according to this argument, in the emergence of mental representational competencies, a set of social cognitive skills theoretically consigned to humans alone. Human-reared great apes’ capacity to engage in “true imitation,” in which both the means and ends of demonstrated actions are reproduced with fairly high rates of fidelity, and laboratory great apes’ failure to do so, has frequently been interpreted as reflecting an emergent understanding of intentionality in the former. Although this epigenetic model of the effects of enculturation on social cognitive systems may be well-founded and theoretically justified in the biological literature, alternative models stressing behavioral as opposed to representational change have been largely overlooked. Here I review some of the controversy surrounding enculturation in great apes, and present an alternative nonmentalistic version of the enculturation hypothesis that can also account for enhanced imitative performance on object-oriented problem-solving tasks in human-reared animals.


EnculturationSocial cognitionEvolutionDevelopmental systemsChimpanzees

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ArkansasFayettevilleUSA