Press Release: New technologies have emerged through imitation rather than intellect

Monday, April 01 - Toulouse, France - Jean François Bonnefon, Maxime Derex and a team of American, British and French researchers have published a study in Nature Human Behaviour showing that understanding is not necessary in order to improve a technology.

Human species have evolved over time and have repeatedly invented complex technologies. Are these technologies the result of human intellectual abilities or rather their capacity to copy others?

The Bonnefon and Derex-led research team sought to answer this question via a laboratory experiment wherein students sought to optimise a wheel traveling down on rails. As the wheel increased in speed over the course of «generations», the understanding of individuals remained mediocre. In a second version of the experiment, the participants transmitted their final two attempts to the following individual, as well as a text describing their theory on the wheel’s effectiveness. The results were similar, with the wheels gaining in speed, although once again without the individuals understanding why.

This experiment illustrates the importance of cultural processes in the emergence of complex tools, as our ability to copy other individuals enables the emergence of technologies that no single individual could have invented alone. It also encourages us to be more prudent in the interpretation of archaeological remains in terms of cognitive capacities, as these abilities are not the only driver of technological evolution.

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