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J Hum Evol. 2003 Jun;44(6):645-64.

A model for tool-use traditions in primates: implications for the coevolution of culture and cognition.

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Department of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy, Duke University, Box 90383, Durham, NC 27708-0383, USA.


Inspired by the demonstration that tool-use variants among wild chimpanzees and orangutans qualify as traditions (or cultures), we developed a formal model to predict the incidence of these acquired specializations among wild primates and to examine the evolution of their underlying abilities. We assumed that the acquisition of the skill by an individual in a social unit is crucially controlled by three main factors, namely probability of innovation, probability of socially biased learning, and the prevailing social conditions (sociability, or number of potential experts at close proximity). The model reconfirms the restriction of customary tool use in wild primates to the most intelligent radiation, great apes; the greater incidence of tool use in more sociable populations of orangutans and chimpanzees; and tendencies toward tool manufacture among the most sociable monkeys. However, it also indicates that sociable gregariousness is far more likely to produce the maintenance of invented skills in a population than solitary life, where the mother is the only accessible expert. We therefore used the model to explore the evolution of the three key parameters. The most likely evolutionary scenario is that where complex skills contribute to fitness, sociability and/or the capacity for socially biased learning increase, whereas innovative abilities (i.e., intelligence) follow indirectly. We suggest that the evolution of high intelligence will often be a byproduct of selection on abilities for socially biased learning that are needed to acquire important skills, and hence that high intelligence should be most common in sociable rather than solitary organisms. Evidence for increased sociability during hominin evolution is consistent with this new hypothesis.

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