Social learning and culture in animals

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Abstract

Most animals must learn some of the behaviours in their repertoire, and some must learn most. Although learning is often thought of as an individual exercise, in nature much learning is social, i.e. under the influence of conspecifics. Social learners acquire novel information or skills faster and at lower cost, but risk learning false information or useless skills. Social learning can be divided into learning from social information and learning through social interaction. Different species have different mechanisms of learning from social information, ranging from selective attention to the environment due to the presence of others to copying of complete motor sequences. In vertical (or oblique) social learning, naïve individuals often learn skills or knowledge from parents (or other adults), whereas horizontal social learning is from peers, either immatures or adults, and more often concerns eavesdropping and public information use. Because vertical social learning is often adaptive, maturing individuals often have a preference for it over individual exploration. The more cognitively demanding social learning abilities probably evolved in this context, in lineages where offspring show long association with parents and niches are complex. Because horizontal learning can be maladaptive, especially when perishable information has become outdated, animals must decide when to deploy social learning. Social learning of novel skills can lead to distinct traditions or cultures when the innovations are sufficiently rare and effectively transmitted socially. Animal cultures may be common but to date taxonomic coverage is insufficient to know how common. Cultural evolution is potentially powerful, but largely confined to humans, for reasons currently unknown. A general theory of culture is therefore badly needed.