Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Open Peer Commentary

Moving forward on cultural learning

Angelina S. Lillarda1

a1 Department of Psychology, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA 94117-7080 Electronic mail:

Tomasello, Kruger & Ratner make the very interesting and valid point that the transmission of culture must depend on understanding others' minds. Culture is shared among a people and is passed on to progeny. The sharing of culture implies that the purpose of (and therefore the meaning behind) any given cultural element (behavioral tradition, word, or artifact) is understood. Because meaning or purpose emanates from minds, something about others' minds must be understood in order to truly learn some element of a culture. It thus makes sense that cultural learning should depend on social-cognitive skills. But what exactly is cultural learning?

There are two rival interpretations of the term cultural learning. In the first, one would define a given type of cultural learning by the type of social-cognitive skill it entails. For example, imitative learning would be defined as any learning of a cultural element in which another's goals or intentions are taken into account. This definition of cultural learning, however, would force Tomasello et al.'s argument into a circle: Imitative learning relies on this social-cognitive skill because imitative learning is defined as learning that relies on this social-cognitive skill. Such a circular definition does not do their argument justice.