Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

How to learn about teaching: An evolutionary framework for the study of teaching behavior in humans and other animals

  • Michelle Ann Kline (a1)

The human species is more reliant on cultural adaptation than any other species, but it is unclear how observational learning can give rise to the faithful transmission of cultural adaptations. One possibility is that teaching facilitates accurate social transmission by narrowing the range of inferences that learners make. However, there is wide disagreement about how to define teaching, and how to interpret the empirical evidence for teaching across cultures and species. In this article I argue that disputes about the nature and prevalence of teaching across human societies and nonhuman animals are based on a number of deep-rooted theoretical differences between fields, as well as on important differences in how teaching is defined. To reconcile these disparate bodies of research, I review the three major approaches to the study of teaching – mentalistic, culture-based, and functionalist – and outline the research questions about teaching that each addresses. I then argue for a new, integrated framework that differentiates between teaching types according to the specific adaptive problems that each type solves, and apply this framework to restructure current empirical evidence on teaching in humans and nonhuman animals. This integrative framework generates novel insights, with broad implications for the study of the evolution of teaching, including the roles of cognitive constraints and cooperative dilemmas in how and when teaching evolves. Finally, I propose an explanation for why some types of teaching are uniquely human, and discuss new directions for research motivated by this framework.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      How to learn about teaching: An evolutionary framework for the study of teaching behavior in humans and other animals
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      How to learn about teaching: An evolutionary framework for the study of teaching behavior in humans and other animals
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      How to learn about teaching: An evolutionary framework for the study of teaching behavior in humans and other animals
      Available formats
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

N. Akhtar & M. A. Gernsbacher (2008) On privileging the role of gaze in infant social cognition. Child Development Perspectives 2:5965.

K. H. Basso (1972) Ice and travel among the Fort Norman Slave: Folk taxonomies and cultural rules. Language in Society 1(1):3149.

C. Bender , D. Herzing & D. Bjorklund (2009) Evidence of teaching in atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) by mother dolphins foraging in the presence of their calves. Animal Cognition 12:4353.

S. Birch , S. Vauthier & P. Bloom (2008) Three-and four-year-olds spontaneously use others' past performance to guide their learning. Cognition 107:1018–34.

D. W. Bird & R. Bliege-Bird (2002) Children on the Reef: Slow learning or strategic foraging? Human Nature 13:269–97.

R. Bliege-Bird & D. W. Bird (2002) Constraints of knowing or constraints of growing?: Fishing and collecting by the children of Mer. Human Nature 13:239–67.

P. Bloom & T. P. German (2000) Two reasons to abandon the false belief task as a test of theory of mind. Cognition 77(1):B25B31.

C. Boesch (1991) Teaching among wild chimpanzees. Animal Behaviour 41(3):530–32.

R. Boyd & P. J. Richerson (1995) Why does culture increase human adaptability? Ethology and Sociobiology 16(2):125–43.

R. Boyd , P. J. Richerson & J. Henrich (2011) The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. [Colloquium Paper]. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 108(Suppl. 2):10918–25. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1100290108.

P. Boyer (1998) Cognitive tracks of cultural inheritance: How evolved intuitive ontology governs cultural transmission. American Anthropologist 100:876–89. doi: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.4.876.

R. J. Brand , D. A. Baldwin & L. A. Ashburn (2002) Evidence for “motionese”: Modifications in mothers' infant-directed action. Developmental Science 5:7283.

G. A. Bryant & H. C. Barrett (2007) Recognizing intentions in infant-directed speech: Evidence for universals. Psychological Science 18(8):746–51. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01970.x.

D. Buchsbaum , A. Gopnik , T. L. Griffiths & P. Shafto (2011) Children's imitation of causal action sequences is influenced by statistical and pedagogical evidence. Cognition 120(3):331–40.

J. M. Burkart & C. P. van Schaik (2010) Cognitive consequences of cooperative breeding in primates? Animal Cognition 13(1):119. doi:10.1007/s10071-009-0263-7.

R. W. Byrne & L. G. Rapaport (2011) What are we learning from teaching? Animal Behaviour 82:1207–11. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.08.018.

C. Caldwell & A. Millen (2009) Social learning mechanisms and cumulative cultural evolution: Is imitation necessary? Psychological Science 20(12):1478–83. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02469.x.

C. Caldwell & A. Whiten (2002) Evolutionary perspectives on imitation: Is a comparative psychology of social learning possible? Animal Cognition 5(4):193208.

J. Call & M. Tomasello (2008) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12(5):187192.

S. Carey (2000) Science education as conceptual change. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 21:1319.

T. M. Caro (1980) Predatory behaviour in domestic cat mothers. Behaviour 74:128–48.

T. M. Caro & M. D. Hauser (1992) Is there teaching in nonhuman animals? The Quarterly Review of Biology 67(2):151–74. Available at:

L. Castro & M. A. Toro (2014) Cumulative cultural evolution: The role of teaching. Journal of Theoretical Biology 347(C):7483. doi:10.1016/j.jtbi.2014.01.006.

M. Chudek , S. Heller , S. Birch & J. Henrich (2011) Prestige-biased cultural learning: Bystander's differential attention to potential models influences children's learning. Evolution and Human Behavior 33(1):4656.

K. Corriveau & P. Harris (2009) Choosing your informant: Weighing familiarity and recent accuracy. Developmental Science 12:426–37.

K. Corriveau , P. Harris , E. Meins , C. Ferneyhough , B. Arnott , L. Elliot , B. Liddle , A. Hearn , L. Vittorini & M. de Rosnay (2009) Young children's trust in their mothers' claims: Longitudinal links with attachment security in infancy. Child Development 80:750–61.

G. Csibra (2007) Teachers in the wild. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11:9596.

G. Csibra & G. Gergely (2009) Natural pedagogy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(4):148–53.

G. Csibra & G. Gergely (2011) Natural pedagogy as evolutionary adaptation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366(1567):1149–57. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0319.

A. C. Davis-Unger & S. M. Carlson (2008) Development of teaching skills and relations to theory of mind in preschoolers. Journal of Cognition and Development 9:2645. Available at:

L. G. Dean , R. L. Kendal , S. J. Schapiro , B. Thierry & K. N. Laland (2012) Identification of the social and cognitive processes underlying human cumulative culture. Science 335(6072):1114–18. doi:10.1126/science.1213969.

M. Enquist & S. Ghirlanda (2007) Evolution of social learning does not explain the origin of human cumulative culture. Journal of Theoretical Biology 246(1):129–35. doi:10.1016/j.jtbi.2006.12.022.

R. F. Ewer (1969) The instinct to teach. Nature 222:698.

A. Fernald & C. Mazzie (1991) Prosody and focus in speech to infants and adults. Developmental Psychology 27:209–21.

L. Fogarty , P. Strimling & K. N. Laland (2011) The evolution of teaching. Evolution 65(10):2760–70. doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01370.x.

D. M. Fragaszy & S. Perry (2003) The biology of traditions: Models and evidence. Cambridge University Press.

N. Franks & T. Richardson (2006) Teaching in tandem-running ants. Nature 439(7073):153.

B. G. Galef (1995) Why behaviour patterns that animals learn socially are locally adaptive. Animal Behaviour 49(5):1325–34. doi:10.1006/anbe.1995.0164.

G. Gergely , K. Egyed & I. Király (2007) On pedagogy. Developmental Science 10(1):139–46. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00576.x.

L. A. Giraldeau , T. J. Valone & J. J. Templeton (2002) Potential disadvantages of using socially acquired information. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences 357(1427):1559–66.

A. Gourgey (1998) Metacognition in basic skills instruction. Instructional Science 26:8196.

S. R. Guberman & P. M. Greenfield (1991) Learning and transfer in everyday cognition. Cognitive Development 6:233–60.

W. D. Hamilton (1964) The genetical evolution of social behaviour. II. Journal of Theoretical Biology 7(1):1752.

J. Henrich (2009) The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior 30:244–60.

J. Henrich & R. Boyd (1998) The evolution of conformist transmission and the emergence of between-group differences. Evolution and Human Behavior 19:215–41.

J. Henrich & R. Boyd (2002) On modeling cognition and culture. Journal of Cognition and Culture 2(2):87112.

J. Henrich , R. Boyd & P. J. Richerson (2008) Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution. Human Nature 19(2):119–37.

J. Henrich & F. J. Gil-White (2001) The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanisms for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior 22:165–96.

J. Henrich & R. McElreath (2003) The evolution of cultural evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology Issues News and Reviews 12(3):123–35. doi:10.1002/(ISSN)1520-6505.

N. Hess & E. Hagen (2006) Psychological adaptations for assessing gossip veracity. Human Nature 17:337–54.

B. S. Hewlett , H. N. Fouts , A. H. Boyette & B. L. Hewlett (2011) Social learning among Congo Basin hunter-gatherers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366:1168–78. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0373.

C. M. Heyes (1994) Social learning in animals: Categories and mechanisms. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 69(2):207231.

C. M. Heyes & B. G. Galef Jr., eds. (1996) Social learning in animals: The roots of culture. Elsevier.

K. Hikami , Y. Hasegawa & T. Matsuzawa (1990) Social transmission of food preferences in Japanese monkeys (Macaca fuscata) after mere exposure or aversion training. Journal of Comparative Psychology 104:233–37.

K. Hill , M. Barton & A. M. Hurtado (2009) The emergence of human uniqueness: Characters underlying behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology Issues News and Reviews 18(5):187200. doi:10.1002/evan.20224.

W. J. E. Hoppitt , G. R. Brown , R. Kendal , L. Rendell , A. Thornton , M. M. Webster & K. N. Laland (2008) Lessons from animal teaching. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23(9):486–93. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2008.05.008.

J. M. Iverson , O. Capirci , E. Longobardi & M. Cristina Caselli (1999) Gesturing in mother-child interactions. Cognitive Development 14(1):5775.

A. Karmiloff-Smith (1985) From meta-processes to conscious access: Evidence from children's metalinguistic and repair data. Cognition 23:95147.

M. A. Kline , R. Boyd & J. Henrich (2013) Teaching and the life history of cultural transmission in Fijian villages. Human Nature 24(4):351–74. doi: 10.1007/s12110-013-9180-1.

M. Koenig , F. Clement & P. Harris (2004) Trust in testimony. Psychological Science 15:694–8.

M. Koenig & P. Harris (2005) Preschoolers mistrust ignorant and inaccurate speakers. Child Development 76:1261–77.

H. Kruuk & M. Turner (1967) Comparative notes on predation by lion, leopard, cheetah and wild dog in the Serengeti area, East Africa. Mammalia 31:1127.

D. F. Lancy (2007) Accounting for variability in mother-child play. American Anthropologist 109:273–84.

D. F. Lancy (2010) Learning “from nobody”: The limited role of teaching in folk models of children's development. Childhood in the Past 3(1):79106. Available at:

J. Lave & E. Wenger (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

E. E. Liers (1951) Notes on the river otter (Lutra canadensis). Journal of Mammalogy 32:19.

J. C. Lopez & D. Lopez (1985) Killer whales of Patagonia and the behavior of intentional stranding while hunting nearshore. Journal of Mammology 66:181–83.

K. Macdonald (2007) Cross-cultural comparison of learning in human hunting. Human Nature 18:386402.

D. Maestripieri (1995) First steps in the macaque world: Do rhesus mothers encourage their infants' independent locomotion? Animal Behaviour 49(6):1541–49.

D. Maestripieri (1996) Maternal encouragement of infant locomotion in pigtail macaques, Macaca nemestrina. Animal Behaviour 51(3):603–10.

N. Masataka , H. Koda , N. Urasopon & K. Watanabe (2009) Free-ranging macaque mothers exaggerate tool-using behavior when observed by offspring. PLoS ONE 4(3):e4768. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004768.g002.

O. Mascaro & D. Sperber (2009) The moral, epistemic, and mindreading components of children's vigilance towards deception. Cognition 112(3):367–80.

A. Maynard (2004) Cultures of teaching in childhood: Formal schooling and Maya sibling teaching at home. Cognitive Development 19(4):517535.

D. Nettle , K. Panchanathan , T. S. Rai & A. P. Fiske (2011) The evolution of giving, sharing, and lotteries. Current Anthropology 52(5):747–56.

C. Nicol & S. Pope (1996) The maternal feeding display of domestic hens is sensitive to perceived chick error. Animal Behaviour 52(4):767–74.

E. Nurmsoo & E. Robinson (2009) Children's trust in previously inaccurate informants who were well or poorly informed: When past errors can be excused. Child Development 80:2327.

R. Paradise & B. Rogoff (2009) Side by side: Learning through observing and pitching in. Ethos 37(1):102–38. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1352.2009.01033.x.

C. Pelissier (1991) The anthropology of teaching and learning. Annual Review of Anthropology 20:7595.

D. C. Penn & D. J. Povinelli (2007) On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a “theory of mind”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B: Biological Sciences 362(1480):731–44.

C. Perreault (2012) The pace of cultural evolution. PLoS ONE 7:e45150.

D. Premack & A. Premack (2004) Education for the prepared mind. Cognitive Development 19:537–49.

N. Raihani & A. R. Ridley (2008) Experimental evidence for teaching in wild pied babblers. Animal Behaviour 75(1):311.

L. G. Rapaport & C. R. Ruiz-Miranda (2002) Tutoring in wild Golden Lion tamarins. International Journal of Primatology 23:1063–70.

M. Reibold , P. Paufler , A. A. Levin , W. Kochmann , N. Pätzke & D. C. Meyer (2006) Materials: Carbon nanotubes in an ancient Damascus sabre. Nature 444(7117):286. doi:10.1038/444286a.

L. Rendell & H. Whitehead (2001) Culture in whales and dolphins. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24:309–82.

T. O. Richardson , P. A. Sleeman , J. M. McNamara , A. I. Houston & N. R. Franks (2007) Teaching with evaluation in ants. Current Biology 17(17):1520–26. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.08.032.

G. Roberts (2005) Cooperation through interdependence. Animal Behaviour 70(4):901908.

A. R. Rogers (1988) Does biology constrain culture. American Anthropologist 90(4):819–31.

B. Rogoff , R. Paradise , R. M. Arauz , M. Correa-Chávez & C. Angelillo (2003) Firsthand learning through intent participation. Annual Review of Psychology 54:175203.

M. A. Sabbagh & D. A. Baldwin (2001) Learning words from knowledgeable versus ignorant speakers: Links between preschoolers' theory of mind and semantic development. Child Development 72(4):1054–70.

A. E. Skerry , E. Lambert , L. J. Powell & K. McAuliffe (2013) The origins of pedagogy: Developmental and evolutionary perspectives. Evolutionary Psychology 11(3):500–72.

J. E. Smith , E. M. Swanson , D. Reed & K. E. Holekamp (2012) Evolution of cooperation among mammalian carnivores and its relevance to hominin evolution. Current Anthropology 53:S436–52.

V. A. Smith , A. P. King & M. J. West (2000) A role of her own: Female cowbirds, Molothrus ater, influence the development and outcome of song learning. Animal Behaviour 60(5):599609. doi:10.1006/anbe.2000.1531.

D. Sperber , F. Clément , C. Heintz , O. Mascaro , H. Mercier , G. Origgi & D. Wilson (2010) Epistemic vigilance. Mind and Language 25(4):359–93.

S. Strauss , M. Ziv & A. Stein (2002) Teaching as a natural cognition and its relations to preschoolers' developing theory of mind. Cognitive Development 17:1473–87. doi: 10.1016/S0885-2014(02)00128-4.

P. Taylor (1992) Altruism in viscous populations: An inclusive fitness model. Evolutionary Ecology 6:352–56.

C. Tennie , J. Call & M. Tomasello (2009) Ratcheting up the ratchet: On the evolution of cumulative culture. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364(1528):2405–15.

A. Thornton & K. McAuliffe (2006) Teaching in wild meerkats. Science 313(5784):227–29.

A. Thornton & K. McAuliffe (2012) Teaching can teach us a lot. Animal Behaviour 83(4):e6e9. doi:10.1126/science.1128727.

A. Thornton & N. Raihani (2008) The evolution of teaching. Animal Behaviour 75(6):1823–36. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2007.12.014

A. Thornton & N. J. Raihani (2010) Identifying teaching in wild animals. Learning and Behavior 38(3):297309.

A. Thornton , N. J. Raihani & A. N. Radford (2007) Teachers in the wild: Some clarification. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11:272–73.

M. Tomasello (1999) The human adaptation for culture. Annual Review of Anthropology 28:509.

M. Tomasello , M. Carpenter & J. Call (2005) Understanding sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:675735.

M. Tomasello , A. C. Kruger & H. H. Ratner (1993) Cultural learning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16:495552.

M. Tomasello , A. P. Melis , C. Tennie , E. Wyman & E. Herrmann (2012) Two key steps in the evolution of human cooperation. Current Anthropology 53(6):673692.

C. P. van Schaik & J. M. Burkart (2010) Mind the gap: Cooperative breeding and the evolution of our unique features. In: Mind the gap: Tracing the origins of human universals, ed. P. M. Kappeler & J. B. Silk, pp. 477–96. Springer.

H. M. Wellman & K. H. Lagattuta (2004) Theory of mind for learning and teaching: The nature and role of explanation. Cognitive Development 19:479–97.

A. Whiten (2011) The scope of culture in chimpanzees, humans and ancestral apes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366(1567):9971007. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.12.010.

A. Whiten & D. Erdal (2012) The human socio-cognitive niche and its evolutionary origins. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367(1599):2119–29. doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0114.

M. Ziv & D. Frye (2004) Children's understanding of teaching: The role of knowledge and belief. Cognitive Development 19:457–77.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score