The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

1
Social Learning as
an Adaptation

Learning is widespread in the animal kingdom. While the mechanisms of learning range from relatively simple conditioning in invertebrates to elaborate cognitive mechanisms in mammals, most animals use some form of learning to acquire behavior that is adaptive in the local habitat. Despite this fact, the great bulk of evolutionary theory assumes that organisms adapt to variable environments through genetic mechanisms alone. The neglect of learning may result from the difficulty of understanding the evolution of learned behaviors. Learning entails an evolutionary trade-off. The advantages of learning are obvious; it allows the same individual to behave appropriately in different environments. For example, by sampling novel foods and learning to avoid noxious food types, a cosmopolitan species like the Norway rat can acquire an appropriate diet in a wide range of environments. However, learning also has disadvantages. First, the learning process itself may be costly. By sampling novel foods, the rat may accidentally poison itself, a risk that could be avoided by an animal with rigid, genetically specified food preferences. Second, because learned behavior is based on imperfect information about the environment, it can lead to errors. For example, the rat may fail to sample or mistakenly reject a nutritious food item. To understand variation in learned behavior among species, one must understand how this evolutionary trade-off is resolved.

Recently, several authors have used statistical decision theory to show why the learning rules of different species vary (McNamara and Houston, 1980; Staddon, 1983; Stephens and Krebs, 1988). One can think of individual organisms as having to “choose” among alternative behaviors to maximize their fitness in the local environment. They have some genetically inherited “prior” information about the state of local environment, some data from their experience,

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