Everyone knows "monkey see, monkey do," but how many of us reflect on the proverb's consequences? Biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin asks just how different animals can be from humans if they engage, as they seem to, in cultural transmission of behavior. Long thought to be one of the last barriers between H. sapiens
and the rest of the family, imitation can be found even in fish--and Dugatkin's book, The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond the Gene
, explores the research on the subject and its implications. His straightforward, accessible style serves him and the reader well. Though there are no tough equations or metaphysical concepts to bar the way to understanding, the delicacy of behavioral research can be tricky to communicate properly. Summarizing his points, he says:
The zoological work on cultural evolution reveals strange and even amazing facts about animals no matter how large or small their brains are--indeed, some just barely have what we can call a brain. The actions of a few individuals, or even just a single one, can dramatically shift the evolutionary future of a particular population fundamentally because individuals are keen copiers.
The author presents his own and others' research into imitative learning and makes a compelling case for its ubiquity. He suggests that a vast range of behavioral science is hampered by its reliance on biological (especially genetic) explanations, and that researchers would do well to sift more carefully between nature and nurture. It's an intriguing notion, and makes The Imitation Factor well worth reading--and besides, everyone else is doing it. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
The dominant paradigm in evolutionary biology asserts that genes are responsible for virtually all manifestations of animal behavior while the environment plays a small role. In a thoroughly engaging, accessible manner, Dugatkin, professor of biology at the University of Louisville, challenges "that assumption by presenting the case that cultural transmission and gene-culture interactions are serious, underestimated forces in evolutionary biology." He analyzes a broad array of behavioral studies conducted by himself, his students and many other scientists to demonstrate that animals imitate each other regularly, learn new behaviors from this mimesis and even engage in activities that are best called teaching. By presenting behavioral examples of simple and complex animals ranging from guppies to macaques, from blackbirds to humans, he proves that large brains are not a prerequisite for imitation. Even more important, Dugatkin establishes these actions as constituents of culture, which many scientists limit to humans. Dugatkin explains scientific method superbly and conveys the thrill of designing an ingenious experiment. His theories and supporting evidence will inspire even the most skeptical readers to rethink humans' place in the animal kingdom. Anyone interested in the nature/culture debate will learn something new from Dugatkin. (Jan.)
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