Humans ‘evolved ability to teach when they began to rely on complex tools'

When early humans developed more complex tools, natural selection began to favour those who could teach, scientists said.

Humans evolved the ability to teach when they began relying increasingly on more complex tools, a study suggests.

Scientists say the process of social learning through technological innovations across generations – known as cumulative cultural evolution – is key to the success of the human species, but its origins have remained a mystery.

A team led by the University of Exeter has found that this specialised learning process in humans co-evolved with the dependency on complex tools.

They said when early humans developed more intricate instruments, natural selection began to favour those who could teach.

Dr Alex Thornton, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, said: “Humans have an unrivalled ability to pass knowledge down the generations.

“Traditional theories assumed that cumulative cultural evolution requires specialised processes, like teaching, to transmit information accurately, but this cannot explain why these processes evolved in the first place.

A boat made of waterproof paper
A boat made of waterproof paper – a ‘simple’ tool created by the study participants (University of Exeter)

“Our aim in this study was to test the hypothesis that these processes gradually ‘co-evolved’ with an increasing reliance on complex tools.”

As part of the study, the researchers recruited more than 600 people, who formed “chains”.

They were tasked to develop either a simple tool – a boat made of waterproof paper – or a more complex tool – a basket made of pipe cleaners.

Both tools were then used to carry marbles and success was measured by the number of marbles each tool carried.

The chain involved 10 “generations”, where 10 versions of the tools were created, with improvements made across each generation.

Each participant either saw the tool made by the previous person in the chain, watched the previous person make the tool, or spoke to the previous participant as part of the learning process.

Dr Amanda Lucas, of the University of Exeter, said: “Simple and complex tools generally improved down the ‘generations’, and for simple tools this improvement was about the same in all three study conditions.

“With complex tools, teaching consistently led to more improvement compared to other conditions.

A basket made of pipe cleaners
A basket made of pipe cleaners – a ‘complex’ tool created by the study participants (University of Exeter)

“Teaching seemed to be particularly useful in allowing new, high-performing designs to be transmitted.”

Dr Alex Thornton continued: “The effects we found were gradual – but the idea here was to look at the origins of cumulative cultural evolution, and over many generations these gradual improvements would add up.

“Our findings point to an evolutionary feedback loop between tool-making and teaching.

“This suggests that our ancestors could have started to make modest cumulative improvements to simple tools without the need for teaching, but as tools became more complex, teaching started to become advantageous.

“The evolution of improved teaching skills would in turn allow the production of even more complex and effective tools.”

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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