Human Beings’ Superpower Is Imitation
Instead of learning from personal experience, we learn from one another
Language changed everything. Once people acquired speech, cultural development and social cohesion no longer depended on increasing our brain size. Evolution shifted from a purely biological process to a social one. With language, humans gained the ability to learn from one another’s experiences. The quest for knowledge began.
Other animals, such as apes, learn by doing. Episodic learning, as it’s called, means figuring things out oneself through trial and error. Fire is hot. If you can remember what happened last time you touched it, you don’t touch it again. Even simpler creatures store the equivalent of learning as instincts or natural behaviors, but they are procedural and automatic. Humans, on the other hand, can learn by imitating one another or, better, representing their experiences to one another through language. This is big and may give us the clearest way of understanding what it means to be human.
The difference between plants, animals, and humans comes down to what each life form can store, leverage, or — as this concept has been named — “bind.” Plants can bind energy. They transform sunlight into biological energy. By spreading their leaves, they harvest ultraviolet rays and turn them into energy that they (and the animals that eat them) can metabolize. But plants are, for the most part, rooted in one place.
Animals are mobile. They can move around and make use of any resources they can reach, whether they walk, run, jump, or fly. The plant must wait for rain. The animal can find water anywhere in its roaming range or even migrate to find a new source. While the plant binds energy, the animal binds space.
Humans’ social, imitative, and language abilities give us even more binding power. What makes humans special is that we can also bind time. We don’t need to experience everything for ourselves over the course of a single lifetime. Instead, we benefit from the experiences of our predecessors, who can tell us what they’ve learned. Because we have evolved to imitate one another, a parent can show a child how to hunt or how to operate the television remote. The child doesn’t necessarily need to figure it out from scratch. Because we have evolved the ability to speak, we can use language to instruct others. Don’t touch the red snake; it’s poisonous.
Through language and instruction, humans create a knowledge base that compresses or binds many centuries of accumulated wisdom into the learning span of a single generation. We do not need to reinvent all knowledge anew every time. But we must, at least provisionally, believe that people of the past have something to teach us.