Teaching in the Wild?

I ran into a great interview with primatologist Rebecca Saxe (NOVA/WGBH) about the relative inability of chimps to teach in the same ways humans do. I wrote one entry on my Teaching with Technology blog about some of her observations, but I noticed some other observations that I thought I would mention here.

One comment Saxe made was that human children have two pointing gestures. The first that emerges is children pointing to something they want right now! Apparently many species, including chimpanzees, share this gesture.

The second pointing gesture is when a child points at he or she wants to show to parents for some other reason (e.g. bunny rabbit!). According to Saxe, parents look for this gesture and become excited since it is an early form of interaction. A communicative pointing instinct?

I would want to check to see if most cultures had this gesture (Saxe may have data, but it wouldn’t appear in this article), but since all cultures interpret basic facial expressions the same way, it seems plausible to me. In fact this pointing gesture seems to be the quintessential reason why some scholars speculate that language and gestures are related.

The other interesting question is if other species can “teach”. It seems clear that humans may be the only primates to have this level of cultural transmission, but what about dolphins, orcas and dogs? A BBC news story commented that dolphins may name themselves while scientists are finding evidence of cultural differences among dolphin and orca pods (e.g. some orcas are “killer whales” who eat meat and other are vegetarian orcas).

Even dogs may show cultural differences as documented in Stanley Coren’s How Dogs Think. Coren even discusses that dogs such as Saint Bernard rescue dogs and herder dogs may actually train each other.

We know that dogs and dolphins can be trained to do quite a wide variety of tasks. They have to be pretty darned good learners, especially if they can learn in the homo sapiens educational system.

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