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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 Mar 19;371(1690). pii: 20150183. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0183.

The reluctant innovator: orangutans and the phylogeny of creativity.

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Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zürich, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland
Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zürich, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland.


Young orangutans are highly neophobic, avoid independent exploration and show a preference for social learning. Accordingly, they acquire virtually all their learned skills through exploration that is socially induced. Adult exploration rates are also low. Comparisons strongly suggest that major innovations, i.e. behaviours that have originally been brought into the population through individual invention, are made where ecological opportunities to do so are propitious. Most populations nonetheless have large innovation repertoires, because innovations, once made, are retained well through social transmission. Wild orangutans are therefore not innovative. In striking contrast, zoo-living orangutans actively seek novelty and are highly exploratory and innovative, probably because of positive reinforcement, active encouragement by human role models, increased sociality and an expectation of safety. The explanation for this contrast most relevant to hominin evolution is that captive apes generally have a highly reduced cognitive load, in particular owing to the absence of predation risk, which strongly reduces the costs of exploration. If the orangutan results generalize to other great apes, this suggests that our ancestors could have become more curious once they had achieved near-immunity to predation on the eve of the explosive increase in creativity characterizing the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution.


curiosity; exploration; learned skills; novelty; social learning

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