Being copycats might be key to being human

phys.org | 8/21/2017 | Staff
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Chimpanzees, human beings' closest animal relatives, share up to 98% of our genes. Their human-like hands and facial expressions can send uncanny shivers of self-recognition down the backs of zoo patrons.

Yet people and chimpanzees lead very different lives. Fewer than 300,000 wild chimpanzees live in a few forested corners of Africa today, while humans have colonized every corner of the globe, from the Arctic tundra to the Kalahari Desert. At more than 7 billion, humans' population dwarfs that of nearly all other mammals—despite our physical weaknesses.

Species - Successes

What could account for our species' incredible evolutionary successes?

One obvious answer is our big brains. It could be that our raw intelligence gave us an unprecedented ability to think outside the box, innovating solutions to gnarly problems as people migrated across the globe. Think of "The Martian," where Matt Damon, trapped alone in a research station on Mars, heroically "sciences" his way out of certain death.

Number - Scientists - Anthropologists - Explanation - Researchers

But a growing number of cognitive scientists and anthropologists are rejecting that explanation. These researchers think that, rather than making our living as innovators, human beings survive and thrive precisely because we don't think for ourselves. Instead, people cope with challenging climates and ecological contexts by carefully copying others – especially those we respect. Instead of Homo sapiens, or "man the knower," we're really Homo imitans: "man the imitator."

In a famous study, psychologists Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten showed two groups of test subjects—children and chimpanzees—a mechanical box with a treat inside. In one condition, the box was opaque, while in the other it was transparent. The experimenters demonstrated how to open the box to retrieve a treat, but they also included the irrelevant step of tapping on the box with a stick.

Children - Steps - Box

Oddly, human children carefully copied all the steps to open the box, even when they could see that...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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