Imitation and the Ratchet Effect

a bunch of gears

Comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello, in his 1999 book The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, popularized the now widely adopted metaphor of the “ratchet effect” in human cultural evolution:

Basically none of the most complex human artifacts or social practices—including tool industries, symbolic communication, and social institutions—were invented once and for all at a single moment by any one individual or group of individuals. Rather, what happened was that some individual or group of individuals first invented a primitive version of the artifact or practice, and then some later user or users made a modification, an “improvement,” that others then adopted perhaps without change for many generations, at which point some other individual or group of individuals made another modification, which was then learned and used by others, and so on over historical time in what has sometimes been dubbed “the ratchet effect” (Tomasello, Kruger, and Ratner, 1993). The process of cumulative cultural evolution requires not only creative invention but also, and just as importantly, faithful social transmission that can work as a ratchet to prevent slippage backward—so that the newly invented artifact or practice preserves its new and improved form at least somewhat faithfully until a further modification or improvement comes along.

But the ratchet effect presents us with a bit of a puzzle for children’s learning—or how we typically think about that learning. One can imagine, for example, a first-generation technology for dividing resources into fair shares where rocks are used as symbols and moved around into equal groups. Future generations learn this technique and then gradually innovate on it by—again, for example—recognizing that one can divide 18 into fair shares by first dividing the ten items into equal groups and then dividing the 8 into the same number of equal groups, rather than taking and moving around all 18 at once.

Even at this stage the challenge of explaining to a new generation of children why one can do this should seem more daunting than explaining the first-generation method. But now throw on top all of the cumulative innovations we can imagine here for analog division across thousands of generations: rocks are eventually replaced by written symbols, contexts where the division process applies proliferate and become more abstract, and a technology is eventually developed (long division) that allows a user to mechanistically divide any number into just about any other without needing to think about the context at all.

All of these developments are positive (or neutral) cultural innovations. But the learner in the one-thousandth generation is not neurologically all that different from the child in the first generation watching rocks being moved around. Yet, the more modern student is asked to learn a much more causally opaque process—one that has been refined over millennia, which the child was obviously not there to witness, and one whose moving parts are not intuitively related to a goal. It is much simpler for a child just arriving on the scene to intuit the goal of a tribal elder who is separating 105 beads into 3 equal groups than it is for a very similar and similarly-situated modern child to understand the goal of the seemingly random number scrawling associated with long division.

So, the puzzle is this: If the process of cumulative cultural evolution has continued to ratchet over time, how has it been maintained over tens of thousands of years when each new generation starts out marginally further from the goal of understanding any given beneficial technology? For the example of division above, we can point to instructional techniques that actually do start with separating rocks (or counters) into equal groups and building up to the more abstract long division algorithm. But this suite of techniques is already a relic. Digital computing has thoroughly taken over this work, and it’s probably safe to say that very few people (adults and children) really know how it works.

If long division is not a salient example for you, you can relate to the feeling of being an ignorant stranger to your own species’ cultural achievements by asking yourself how much you really understand about how toilets work, how cars work, and on and on. Or consider one of the many gruesome examples—described by Joseph Henrich in his book The Secret of Our Success—of what happens when otherwise intelligent and strong people find themselves outside the protections of relevant cultural understandings:

In June 1845 the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, both under the command of Sir John Franklin, sailed away from the British Isles in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea channel that could energize trade by connecting western Europe to East Asia. This was the Apollo mission of the mid-nineteenth century, as the British raced the Russians for control of the Canadian Arctic and to complete a global map of terrestrial magnetism. The British admiralty outfitted Franklin, an experienced naval officer who had faced Arctic challenges before, with two field-tested, reinforced ice-breaking ships equipped with state-of-the-art steam engines, retractable screw propellers, and detachable rudders. With cork insulation, coal-fired internal heating, desalinators, five years of provisions, including tens of thousands of cans of food (canning was a new technology), and a twelve-hundred-volume library, these ships were carefully prepared to explore the icy north and endure long Arctic winters.

As expected, the expedition’s first season of exploration ended when the sea ice inevitably locked them in for the winter around Devon and Beechney Islands, 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. After a successful ten-month stay, the seas opened and the expedition moved south to explore the seaways near King William Island, where in September they again found themselves locked in by ice. This time, however, as the next summer approached, it soon became clear that the ice was not retreating and that they’d remain imprisoned for another year. Franklin promptly died, leaving his crew to face the coming year in the pack ice with dwindling supplies of food and coal (heat). In April 1848, after nineteen months on the ice, the second-in-command, an experienced Arctic officer named Crozier, ordered the 105 men to abandon ship and set up camp on King William Island.

The details of what happened next are not completely known, but what is clear is that everyone gradually died. . . .

King William Island lies at the heart of Netsilik territory, an Inuit population that spent its winters out on the pack ice and their summers on the island, just like Franklin’s men. In the winter, they lived in snow houses and hunted seals using harpoons. In the summer, they lived in tents, hunted caribou, musk ox, and birds using complex compound bows and kayaks, and speared salmon using leisters. The Netsilik name for the main harbor on King William Island is Uqsuqtuuq, which means “lots of fat” (seal fat). For the Netsilik, this island is rich in resources for food, clothing, shelter, and tool-making (e.g., drift wood).

It’s Not the Innovation

What can explain the rapid progress in cumulative cultural achievements in our species (and no others, to the same extent) when each new generation must in many ways “catch up” to the ratcheted accomplishments of the previous ones? Let’s start with what the answer cannot possibly be. Tomasello again:

Perhaps surprisingly, for many animal species it is not the creative component, but rather the stabilizing ratchet component, that is the difficult feat. Thus, many nonhuman primate individuals regularly produce intelligent behavioral innovations and novelties, but then their groupmates do not engage in the kinds of social learning that would enable, over time, the cultural ratchet to do its work (Kummer and Goodall, 1985).

Similarly, Franklin’s men did not turn to cannibalism and eventually succumb to the elements because they lacked creativity or innovation or could not think outside the box.

The reason Franklin’s men could not survive is that humans don’t adapt to novel environments the way other animals do or by using our individual intelligence. None of the 105 big brains figured out how to use driftwood, which was available on King William Island’s west coast where they camped, to make the recurve composite bows, which the Inuit used when stalking caribou. They further lacked the vast body of cultural know-how about building snow houses, creating fresh water, hunting seals, making kayaks, spearing salmon and tailoring cold-weather clothing.

Innovation, by itself, gets us nowhere. The notion that our culture progresses because our species is endowed with big innovative brains (and we just need to unlock that potential) is nonsense in light of what we know about cultural evolution. In reality, what best explains the ratchet effect is a lot of imitation (solving the more difficult problem of storing and transmitting cultural knowledge) and a little bit of innovation (solving the problem of occasionally generating novel ideas, spread by imitation).

It’s the Imitation

The Inuit that can survive and thrive in an environment that killed all of Franklin’s men do so because, like Franklin’s men and like us, they are good imitators within their own cultures (and not very good innovators on average). All of us imitate valuable cultural knowledge without completely understanding what we’re doing. We need this skill precisely because of the ratchet effect. It is simply not possible, in general, to personally innovate solutions that can rival the effectiveness of those built up over thousands of generations, and it is similarly impossible to conceptually understand everything in the world before we need to use it. Thus, we imitate first and understand later. Indeed, “understandings” (or, answers to “why” questions) are imitated just as readily as answers to “how” questions, and can be equally causally opaque. If asked by a child why we don’t fly off into space when we jump, your answer would involve copying an understanding—an understanding not of your own devising—about gravity. And you don’t know what gravity is because no one does.

Lest you think (despite the story about Sir John Franklin) that causal opacity and rapid ratcheting is just a puzzle for tech-rich, conventionally educated, Western cultures in developed countries, here’s Henrich again:

Let’s briefly consider just a few of the Inuit cultural adaptations that you would need to figure out to survive on King William Island. To hunt seals, you first have to find their breathing holes in the ice. It’s important that the area around the hole be snow covered—otherwise the seals will hear you and vanish. You then open the hole, smell it to verify that it’s still in use (what do seals smell like?), and then assess the shape of the hole using a special curved piece of caribou antler. The hole is then covered with snow, save for a small gap at the top that is capped with a down indicator. If the seal enters the hole, the indicator moves, and you must blindly plunge your harpoon into the hole using all your weight. Your harpoon should be about 1.5 meters (5 ft) long, with a detachable tip that is tethered with a heavy braid of sinew line. You can get the antler from the previously noted caribou, which you brought down with your driftwood bow. The rear spike of the harpoon is made of extra-hard polar bear bone (yes, you also need to know how to kill polar bears; best to catch them napping in their dens). Once you’ve plunged your harpoon’s head into the seal, you’re then in a wrestling match as you reel him in, onto the ice, where you can finish him off with the aforementioned bear-bone spike.

Another reason to believe that imitation is (most of) the secret sauce for cultural evolution is that imitation shows up very early and robustly in development. In fact, children engage in what is called overimitation—imitating actions performed by a model even when those actions are obviously causally irrelevant to achieving the model’s goal. Other primates don’t do this. Legare and Nielsen explain this counterintuitive finding from research:

Why faithfully copy all of the actions of a demonstrator, even those that are obviously irrelevant? Given the potentially overwhelming number of objects, tools, and artifacts children must learn to use, it is useful to replicate the entire suite of actions used by an expert when first learning how to do something. Some propose that overimitation is an adaptive human strategy facilitating more rapid social learning of instrumental skills than would be possible if copying required a full representation of the causal structure of an event.


There are many takeaways and elaborations that come to mind in light of the above—all of which I’m still sussing out. One important takeaway worth mentioning, I think, is that, because humans have had culture for possibly hundreds of thousands of years, it is not out of the question that we have undergone some psychological adaptations that allow us to, most importantly, store and transmit and, less importantly, innovate on, valuable prefabricated solutions in our cultural groups.

Is it possible that the ratchet effect can help explain a foundational concept in Cognitive Load Theory: that our working memories (our innovation engines) are severely limited while our long-term memories (our imitation engines) are functionally infinite?

The other takeaway comes from Paul Harris, in the last paragraph of his book Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others, which follows many of the same themes elaborated above, specifically from the child development angle. It is a takeaway worth taking away, especially for those in education who believe, without question or doubt, that children should be thought of as “little scientists”:

The classic method in social anthropology is not the scientific method in the way that experimental scientists conceive of it. It includes no experiments or control groups. Instead, when anthropologists want to understand a new culture, they immerse themselves in the language, learn from participant observation, and rely on trusted informants. Of course, this method has an ancient pedigree. Human children have successfully used it for millennia across innumerable cultures. Indeed, judging by their methods and their talents, we would do well to think of children not as scientists, but as anthropologists.

Published by

Josh Fisher

Instructional designer, software development in K-12 mathematics education.