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Uniquely Human

Pay attention… time for lessons at animal school

About the author

Jason G Goldman is a science writer based in Los Angeles. He writes about animal behavior, wildlife, and the complex relationship between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Find him on twitter: @jgold85.

Pay attention… time for lessons in life at animal school

(Copyright: Getty Images)

Many species like meerkats school their offspring much like we do. But do they learn lessons like humans?

Welcome to Meerkat Academy. Admission is free, and lunch is provided, though the only thing on the menu is scorpions. While scorpions are tasty and nutritious, they are extremely dangerous. Just one mistake with an untrained eye or an overeager paw could mean death for an unlucky meerkat. So young meerkats have to attend eating classes.

Teaching – or, as psychologists call it, pedagogy – is defined as a kind of communication between two or more individuals that results in the transfer of knowledge or skills, according to Hungarian developmental psychologists Giorgy Gergely and Gergely Csibra. To qualify as teaching, the teacher must also modify his or her behaviour by tailoring lessons based on the performance of the student. And the knowledge transferred must be information that can be applied to new people, objects, locations, or events – what is known as generalisable information. To mutilate the oft-quoted idiom, showing a man where to find a fish is not teaching, but teaching a man how to find fish is.

Back in meerkat academy, experienced adults provide their students with dead scorpions that have already had their stingers removed. This way, the young can learn how to remove the edible parts. Once they've mastered that lesson, the adults provide dead scorpions with stingers still intact. It is much easier for the juveniles to learn to remove stingers from dead scorpions than ones that are alive and squirming. Finally, the adults provide the juveniles with living, lethal scorpions. In this way, the inexperienced pups learn to effectively interact with scorpions progressing from completely safe specimens to increasingly dangerous ones, according to their age and skills.

So, the adult meerkats adjust the curriculum – and, therefore, their own behaviour – based upon the behaviour of the juveniles. However, the adults never actually demonstrate proper scorpion-killing methods, they merely provide the materials. It would be like a culinary instructor who provided her students with pots, pans, knives, and ingredients, but no recipe. Instructors at the meerkat academy don't actually teach, at least according to the definition outlined by Gergely and Csibra.

Tap class

Tandem-running ants may come closer. Like meerkats, when one ant knows the location of food, it explicitly modifies its behaviour so that the second ant can learn it as well. After leaving the nest, the demonstrator slows down or stops periodically so that the follower can memorise the route between the nest and the food source. If the process gets interrupted, the leader will wait for the learner to return before resuming the lesson. The way this works is that the knowledgeable ant takes the front position, and requires constant tapping on his rear end in order to continue demonstrating the path. The learner uses his antennae to tap the leader as if to say, "I'm paying attention, show me the way." While both meerkats and ants adjust their lessons based upon the behaviour of their students, only for ants is the interaction explicitly communicative and bidirectional.

However, this form of interaction among ants still doesn't fit the formal criteria for teaching. This is because the information that is transferred between the two ants is highly specific, and firmly situated within the here-and-now. Rather than showing each other how to find food more generally, the information provided is simply where food can be found at a specific moment in time. Many other animals instruct using this specific form of information flow. Bees display elaborate dances to indicate the location of food and monkeys use various calls to notify others of the presence of predators. A howler monkey that screams to inform others of an aerial predator can't communicate something like "aerial predators tend to hunt during the daytime," or "aerial predators come from the north." Cheetahs show their young how to stalk prey, which is general, but like meerkats, their interaction is not explicitly communicative.

Information hungry

In fact, every known teaching-like interaction among non-human animals involves only one specific kind of information transfer. Only human teaching fits all three criteria. And, more importantly, only humans are promiscuous teachers. Humans teach everything. Humans teach anything.

We teach differential calculus and how to tie shoes. We teach biochemistry and computer science, carpentry and pottery. When I was in middle school, I took an after-school calligraphy class. I spent two seasons trying football, one season attempting basketball, and one learning volleyball. I took drawing classes and painting classes, and spent one long afternoon learning the art of flower arrangement. In school, I enrolled in a badminton elective. I spent two years trying to learn to play the guitar.

What is it about humans that allows us to teach in a way that no other animal does? Gergely and Csibra argue that human communication itself is special. They write, "If I point at two aeroplanes and tell you that ‘aeroplanes fly’, what you learn is not restricted to the particular aeroplanes you see or to the present context, but will provide you generic knowledge about the kind of artifact these planes belong to that is generalisable to other members of the category and to variable contexts…"

What they're saying is that the generalisability of the information is manifest within the communication itself. They continue, "If I show you by manual demonstration how to open a milk carton, what you will learn is how to open that kind of container," not how to open only that particular container. The transmission of general knowledge is implicit within human communication, whether that communication is linguistic or not, it doesn't need to be deduced or inferred by the learner.

Of all the animals in the world, only humans build skyscrapers, follow recipes, play backgammon, learn statistics, receive DVDs by mail, and place laser-wielding robots on Mars. The kind of culture that humans enjoy can only exist because we are so proficient at teaching and at learning from teachers. In most ways, the differences between humans and non-human animals are ones of degree rather than of kind. But there’s one categorical difference between our species and every other. We teach, and we teach anything.

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