Silent memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun 06 Jul 2003 - 13:27:02 GMT

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    I have recently been skimming through Scientific Americans I missed reading in the past few years. The Dec. 2001 issue had an article "How we came to be Humans" by Ian Tattersall. I found something related to recent discussion on this list. Here is a paragraph:

            "This inevitably brings up the question about the Neanderthals that everyone wants answered: Could they talk? Many people, especially looking at the spectacularly beautiful stone tools that the Neanderthals made with such skill, find it hard to believe that they couldn't. How, other than through the use of language, could such remarkable skills have been passed down over the generations? Well, not long ago a group of Japanese researchers made a preliminary stab at addressing this problem. They divided a group of undergraduates in two and taught one half how to make a typical Neanderthal stone tool by using elaborate verbal explanations along with practical demonstrations. The other half they taught by silent example alone. One thing this experiment dramatically revealed was just how tough it is to make stone tools; some of the undergraduates never became proficient. But more remarkable still was that the two groups showed essentially no difference either in the speed at which they acquired toolmaking skills or in the efficiency with which they did so. Apparently learning by silent example is just fine for passing along even sophisticated stone tool-making techniques."

    Keith Henson

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