The researchers wanted to demonstrate that “natural selection” among our ancestors favored those who could teach:
More than 600 people took part in the study, forming “chains” to develop a simple tool (a boat made of waterproof paper) or a more complex tool (a basket made of pipe cleaners).
All tools were used to carry marbles, with success measured by number of marbles carried.
The development chain involved ten “generations” — ten versions of the tool being made.
Each participant either saw the tool made by the previous person in the chain, watched the previous person make the tool (and could thus imitate and learn from them) or spoke to the previous participant — allowing teaching to take place.
“Simple and complex tools generally improved down the ‘generations’, and for simple tools this improvement was about the same in all three study conditions,” said Dr Amanda Lucas, of the University of Exeter.
“With complex tools, teaching consistently led to more improvement compared to other conditions.
“Teaching seemed to be particularly useful in allowing new, high-performing designs to be transmitted.” University of Exeter, “Teaching and complex tools ‘evolved together’” at ScienceDaily
Paper. (open access)
The problem that would be obvious to anyone but the researchers (apparently) is that everyone involved in the study knew what was going on in the big picture and that what they were doing didn’t really matter. The opposite would be true of our ancestors.
The first time one of our ancestors thought of a new technology, almost certainly, that person did not know a big picture around technology, but was trying to solve a serious local problem.
However, a person smart enough to develop a new technology or learn it may well be smart enough to teach it. Why is that a big study subject?
On the other hand, at least they weren’t looking for… the teaching gene…