György Gergely
Institute for Psychological Research
Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest

THE NATURE OF CULTURAL LEARNING IN HUMANS: THE CASE FOR HUMAN 'PEDAGOGY'

We propose that during hominid evolution our human ancestors have evolved a species-specific system of mutual design whose dedicated function is to transfer relevant cultural knowledge to, and to receive such knowledge from, conspecifics by teaching. This cognitive adaptation, which we call 'pedagogy', involves a special communication system for the efficient transmission of relevant cultural information, that does not presuppose either language or high-level theory of mind, but could have itself provided a basis facilitating the development of these further human-specific cognitive abilities both in phylogenetic and ontogenetic development. We speculate that during hominid evolution the appearance of functionalist conceptualization of objects as tools (“inverse teleology”), the consequent practice of tool manufacturing, and especially the appearance of mediated tool use (i.e., using tools to make tools: “recursive teleology”) posed a learnability problem for existing social observational learning mechanisms (including statistical, trial-and-error, and emulation learning) that made the efficient transgenerational transmission of such cultural forms impossible. The increasing cognitive “opacity” of complex artifacts and their manufacturing procedures provided selective pressure for the evolution of a qualitatively new type of social learning mechanism in the form of pedagogy. The main body of substantive evidence supporting the hypothesis of human pedagogy, however, comes from recent accumulation of new results from the developmental psychology of infant cognition. The talk will summarize the design specifications of the system of pedagogical knowledge transfer and recent empirical evidence supporting its early existence in human ontogenetic development. We shall argue that many central phenomena of human infant social cognition that may seem puzzling in light of their standard functional explanation can be more coherently and plausibly interpreted as reflecting the adaptations to receive relevant cultural knowledge from social partners through specialized forms of ostensive communication and knowledge manifestation characteristic of human pedagogy.