Cultural Transmission

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Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Relative Difference
MOCA Domain: 
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The classic anthropological definition of culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (E. B. Tylor 1871). However it is defined, it is agreed that culture is passed on from generation to generation—or "horizontally" between individuals and collectivities—in a manner that involves “social learning” rather than specific genetic programming. Culture is divisible into "traits" (single items) and "complexes" (more or less integrated or institutionalized collections of traits). Culture typically is thought of as though it were attached to or identified with particular groups or societies or peoples. “Social learning” is by definition a necessary condition for culture. If social learning is also considered a sufficient condition for culture, then many species besides humans have culture. Scholars disagree whether social learning is really all there is to culture or, alternatively, whether there are some defining features of human culture that make it fundamentally distinct from animal culture. While this is a semantic problem it is also a serious scientific matter. If chimpanzees, for example, share the crucial mental ingredients for culture with humans it would be reasonable to hypothesize that chimpanzee- and human culture are homologous, meaning that each species’ capacity for culture traces to their common ancestry. If, however, human culture is something distinct, then such similarities as there are between chimpanzee and human cultures make them analogous but independent developments. Some scholars argue that fundamental features of human culture are far more recent than the split between chimpanzees and humans. Thus some scholars say that animals have traditions but not culture. Others use such terms as protoculture for animals.


Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are defined in 2017 as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25,000 - 30,000 thousand (25 - 30 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6,000 - 8,000 thousand (6 - 8 million) years ago
  • the emergence of the genus Homo was 2,000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 500 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 - 300 thousand years ago

Possible Appearance: 
6,000 thousand years ago
Definite Appearance: 
2,000 thousand years ago
The Human Difference: 

Human culture is vastly more complex than that of any other species. The moralization of culture (the "right" vs. other ways to do things) may be distinctive of human culture.

Universality in Human Populations: 

Culture is found in all human societies, past or present.

Mechanisms Responsible for the Difference: 

The greater complexity of human culture may reflect differences in the processes of cultural transmission.  In nonhuman primates it usually consists of emulation (seeing a result and duplicating it through trial and error) whereas humans normally imitate (focusing on how the result was achieved and then attempting to duplicate the same steps to the result).  Moreover, explicit instruction is common among humans but rare or absent among other species. Humans, unlike other species, often or normally insist upon there is a right way to do things. Specific human cultural universals account for a more rapid and extensive cultural development than in other species.  Narrative and intentional instruction directly enhance the transmission of culture.  Fire and cooking, by altering the demographics of humans, gave greater scope to cultural innovation and variation. Human speech greatly enhanced the transmission of culture.

Occurrence in Other Animals: 

In its broadest definition culture is found in many species.

Related MOCA Topics


  1. Middle Pleistocene fire use: The first signal of widespread cultural diffusion in human evolution, MacDonald, Katharine, Scherjon Fulco, van Veen Eva, Vaesen Krist, and Roebroeks Wil , Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2021/08/03, Volume 118, Issue 31, p.e2101108118, (2021)
  2. Population size does not explain past changes in cultural complexity., Vaesen, Krist, Collard Mark, Cosgrove Richard, and Roebroeks Wil , Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2016 Apr 19, Volume 113, Issue 16, p.E2241-7, (2016)
  3. Cultural Evolutionary Perspectives on Creativity and Human Innovation., Fogarty, Laurel, Creanza Nicole, and Feldman Marcus W. , Trends Ecol Evol, 2015 Dec, Volume 30, Issue 12, p.736-54, (2015)
  4. The Question of Animal Culture, Laland, K. N., and Galef B. G. , p.360, (2009)
  5. Human Universals, Human Nature & Human Culture, Brown, D. E. , 2004, Volume 133, Issue 4, p.47-54, (2004)
  6. Human Universals, Brown, Donald E. , New York, p.x, 220 p, (1991)