[Paper spotlight] Natural Pedagogy in Oral Storytelling: Evidence that Humans are a Teaching Species

This paper was presented by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama  in the session Ages and Stages at the 2018 AAA annual meeting, and co-authored by Lawrence Sugiyama. Both are professors of anthropology at the University of Oregon.

Abstract: Instruction is reportedly rare in forager societies, raising the question of whether humans have evolved adaptations for teaching. This question hinges on definition. Ethologists define teaching as the modification of behavior by an expert in the presence of a novice, such that the expert incurs a cost (or derives no immediate benefit) and the novice acquires skills/knowledge it wouldn’t acquire (or would acquire less efficiently) otherwise. This begs the question of how behavior is modified to transmit knowledge. Csibra & Gergely (2009) argue that human communication contains mechanisms (e.g., eye contact, pointing, prosodic variation) that signal intent to transmit generalizable knowledge, indicate the intended recipient, and collectively constitute a “natural pedagogy.” On this view, the communication of generalizable knowledge in conjunction with the use of natural pedagogy constitutes evidence of teaching. This study presents evidence that oral storytelling meets these criteria. We searched the forager ethnographic record for descriptions of the stylistic aspects of performed narrative; descriptions were analyzed for references to (a) the use of natural pedagogy behaviors by narrators, and (b) the transmission of generalizable knowledge in oral storytelling. Descriptions were found for 22 forager cultures across five continents and diverse ecological zones and language families: all culture groups evinced the use of natural pedagogy and the transmission of generalizable knowledge in performed narrative. Results suggest that oral storytelling is a form of teaching in our species.

Advertisements