What’s Special about Human Imitation? A Comparison with Enculturated Apes
Received: 20 March 2016 / Revised: 25 June 2016 / Accepted: 28 June 2016 / Published: 7 July 2016
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What, if anything, is special about human imitation? An evaluation of enculturated apes’ imitation skills, a “best case scenario” of non-human apes’ imitation performance, reveals important similarities and differences between this special population of apes and human children. Candidates for shared imitation mechanisms
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What, if anything, is special about human imitation? An evaluation of enculturated apes’ imitation skills, a “best case scenario” of non-human apes’ imitation performance, reveals important similarities and differences between this special population of apes and human children. Candidates for shared imitation mechanisms include the ability to imitate various familiar transitive responses and object–object actions that involve familiar tools. Candidates for uniquely derived imitation mechanisms include: imitating novel transitive actions and novel tool-using responses as well as imitating opaque or intransitive gestures, regardless of familiarity. While the evidence demonstrates that enculturated apes outperform non-enculturated apes and perform more like human children, all apes, regardless of rearing history, generally excel at imitating familiar, over-rehearsed responses and are poor, relative to human children, at imitating novel, opaque or intransitive responses. Given the similarities between the sensory and motor systems of preschool age human children and non-human apes, it is unlikely that differences in sensory input and/or motor-output alone explain the observed discontinuities in imitation performance. The special rearing history of enculturated apes—including imitation-specific training—further diminishes arguments suggesting that differences are experience-dependent. Here, it is argued that such differences are best explained by distinct, specialized mechanisms that have evolved for copying rules and responses in particular content domains. Uniquely derived social and imitation learning mechanisms may represent adaptations for learning novel communicative gestures and complex tool-use. Given our species’ dependence on both language and tools, mechanisms that accelerated learning in these domains are likely to have faced intense selective pressures, starting with the earliest of human ancestors.