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Teaching and the Life History of Cultural Transmission in Fijian Villages

Abstract

Much existing literature in anthropology suggests that teaching is rare in non-Western societies, and that cultural transmission is mostly vertical (parent-to-offspring). However, applications of evolutionary theory to humans predict both teaching and non-vertical transmission of culturally learned skills, behaviors, and knowledge should be common cross-culturally. Here, we review this body of theory to derive predictions about when teaching and non-vertical transmission should be adaptive, and thus more likely to be observed empirically. Using three interviews conducted with rural Fijian populations, we find that parents are more likely to teach than are other kin types, high-skill and highly valued domains are more likely to be taught, and oblique transmission is associated with high-skill domains, which are learned later in life. Finally, we conclude that the apparent conflict between theory and empirical evidence is due to a mismatch of theoretical hypotheses and empirical claims across disciplines, and we reconcile theory with the existing literature in light of our results.

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Acknowledgments

This research was completed as part of a project funded by National Institute of Health Challenge Grant, National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant, National Science Foundation PECASE, Social Science Research Council (Canada), and a Leakey Foundation General Research Grant. We thank the UCLA Experimental Behavioral Anthropology lab group and members of the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture for useful feedback, and Cristina Moya for sharing scripts for plotting in R. We thank Melaia Velamei, Paula Tekei, and Joji Rayasidamu for their excellent work as research assistants, and the people of Teci, Dalomo, and Bukama villages for their participation and generous hospitality.

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Correspondence to Michelle A. Kline.

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Kline, M.A., Boyd, R. & Henrich, J. Teaching and the Life History of Cultural Transmission in Fijian Villages. Hum Nat 24, 351–374 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-013-9180-1

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Key words

  • Cultural transmission
  • Human evolution
  • Teaching
  • Learning
  • Childhood