Is there teaching in nonhuman animals?

Q Rev Biol. 1992 Jun;67(2):151-74. doi: 10.1086/417553.


We derive a simple operational definition of teaching that distinguishes it from other forms of social learning where there is no active participation of instructors, and then discuss the constituent parts of the definition in detail. From a functional perspective, it is argued that the instructor's sensitivity to the pupil's changing skills or knowledge, and the instructor's ability to attribute mental states to others, are not necessary conditions of teaching in nonhuman animals, as assumed by previous work, because guided instruction without these prerequisites could still be favored by natural selection. A number of cases of social interaction in several orders of mammals and birds that have been interpreted as evidence of teaching are then reviewed. These cases fall into two categories: situations where offspring are provided with opportunities to practice skills ("opportunity teaching"), and instances where the behavior of young is either encouraged or punished by adults ("coaching"). Although certain taxonomic orders appear to use one form of teaching more often than the other, this may have more to do with the quality of the current data set than with inherent species-specific constraints. We suggest several directions for future research on teaching in nonhuman animals that will lead to a more thorough understanding of this poorly documented phenomenon. We argue throughout that adherence to conventional, narrow definitions of teaching, generally derived from observations of human adult-infant interactions, has caused many related but simpler phenomena in other species to go unstudied or unrecorded, and severely limits further exploration of this topic.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Population Groups / psychology*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Birds
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mammals / psychology
  • Primates / psychology
  • Teaching*