The Human Infant as Homo Imitans
Andrew N. Meltzoff University of Washington
A central goal of this book is to bring together essays on social learning and imitation in animals and man. This goal builds upon a long-standing question asked at least as far back as Aristotle. Aristotle ( 1941) was quite decisive in his evaluation of the comparative imitative capacities of man and animals: "Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation" (p. 448b).
Before evaluating this statement in the light of modern-day experiments, we might inquire why human beings' putative imitative prowess would put them at an advantage over lower animals. What is the use of imitation? What Aristotle recognized, it seems, is that imitation is a vehicle for the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. It provides a mechanism for a kind of Lamarckian evolutionary change in humans. Imitation provides an efficient channel through which acquired behaviors, skills, customs, and traditions may be incorporated by the young.
Bona fide instances of the transmission of acquired behavior patterns in animals are rare enough to be noteworthy. Such examples become celebrated cases in the literature. Animal behavior texts highlight the role of imitation in the acquisition of song in certain passerine birds ( Marler & Tamura, 1964). Similarly Kawamura ( 1959) work has been widely cited for the observation that members of a troop of Japanese macaques began washing their sweet potatoes in the sea after watching a few juveniles who invented this technique.
In contrast, even the most casual observer of human behavior sees numerous instances of imitation in young children--the imitation of parental postures, facial expressions, and tool use. It Is commonly observed that a little boy will lather his smooth face and pretend to shave with a stick, or sit in front of his father's word-processor and studiously poke at the keys with his fingers. Imita-