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To explain social learning without invoking the cognitively complex concept of imitation, many learning mechanisms have been proposed. Borrowing an idea used routinely in cognitive psychology, we argue that most of these alternatives can be subsumed under a single process, priming, in which input increases the activation of stored internal representations. Imitation itself has generally been seen as a “special faculty.” This has diverted much research towards the all-or-none question of whether an animal can imitate, with disappointingly inconclusive results. In the great apes, however, voluntary, learned behaviour is organized hierarchically. This means that imitation can occur at various levels, of which we single out two clearly distinct ones: the “action level,” a rather detailed and linear specification of sequential acts, and the “program level,” a broader description of subroutine structure and the hierarchical layout of a behavioural “program.” Program level imitation is a high-level, constructive mechanism, adapted for the efficient learning of complex skills and thus not evident in the simple manipulations used to test for imitation in the laboratory. As examples, we describe the food-preparation techniques of wild mountain gorillas and the imitative behaviour of orangutans undergoing “rehabilitation” to the wild. Representing and manipulating relations between objects seems to be one basic building block in their hierarchical programs. There is evidence that great apes suffer from a stricter capacity limit than humans in the hierarchical depth of planning. We re-interpret some chimpanzee behaviour previously described as “emulation” and suggest that all great apes may be able to imitate at the program level. Action level imitation is seldom observed in great ape skill learning, and may have a largely social role, even in humans.
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