Dr Caroline Schuppli (Zuerich/MPI Leipzig) will present ‘Orangutan social learning and skill acquisition: towards a better understanding of cognitive evolution' in this seminar, hosted by Andy Whiten. This seminar will be followed two days later by our final seminar this year, with Dr Susana Carvalho's seminar on ‘Fifteen years of tracing early hominin behavioural evolution: where should we be heading next?' (Friday 7 May, 1pm).
Cognitive capacity gets selected for via skills and abilities which provide individuals with fitness benefits. However, strikingly, the more intelligent a species is, the more incompetent its infants are at birth and the more they must learn to become functioning adults. This suggests that, especially for large-brained species, the developmental construction of intelligence critically depends on inputs during ontogeny. Therefore, to understand the evolution of complex cognition, we need to look at how skills and abilities develop in individuals.
Orangutans are an interesting species in which to look at the development of skills and cognition because they are large-brained, show vast repertoires of skills and knowledge as adults but are born very unskilled. At the same time, orangutans show a high level of inter- and intrapopulation variation in the factors that are likely to affect cognitive development, including levels of sociability, pace of life history, and habitat ecology. ‘Orangutan social learning and skill acquisition: towards a better understanding of cognitive evolution' shows that orangutans acquire their skill and knowledge through social learning and socially induced independent practice over the course of 12 years. Immatures growing up with more opportunities for social learning do not just make use of these opportunities but also show increased rates of independent learning in later life. Across populations, opportunities for social learning are correlated with larger skill and knowledge repertoires. Furthermore, orangutan social learning strategies change over age and differ for the two sexes.
Even though orangutans are less sociable than other apes, social learning plays a major role during skill acquisition and opportunities for social learning have wide-ranging effects on the individual and population level. This suggest that social learning is an important element for translating cognitive capacities into actual skills and knowledge. Therefore, opportunities for social learning and efficient social learning strategies are likely among the most important factors for the evolution of advanced cognition.
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