The optimal timing of teaching and learning across the life course

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2020 Jul 20;375(1803):20190500. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0500. Epub 2020 Jun 1.


The evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton (Hamilton 1966 J. Theor. Biol.12, 12-45. (doi:10.1016/0022-5193(66)90184-6)) famously showed that the force of natural selection declines with age, and reaches zero by the age of reproductive cessation. However, in social species, the transfer of fitness-enhancing resources by postreproductive adults increases the value of survival to late ages. While most research has focused on intergenerational food transfers in social animals, here we consider the potential fitness benefits of information transfer, and investigate the ecological contexts where pedagogy is likely to occur. Although the evolution of teaching is an important topic in behavioural biology and in studies of human cultural evolution, few formal models of teaching exist. Here, we present a modelling framework for predicting the timing of both information transfer and learning across the life course, and find that under a broad range of conditions, optimal patterns of information transfer in a skills-intensive ecology often involve postreproductive aged teachers. We explore several implications among human subsistence populations, evaluating the cost of hunting pedagogy and the relationship between activity skill complexity and the timing of pedagogy for several subsistence activities. Long lifespan and extended juvenility that characterize the human life history likely evolved in the context of a skills-intensive ecological niche with multi-stage pedagogy and multigenerational cooperation. This article is part of the theme issue 'Life history and learning: how childhood, caregiving and old age shape cognition and culture in humans and other animals'.

Keywords: hunter–gatherers; life-history evolution; pedagogy; postreproductive; social transmission; teaching.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cultural Evolution*
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination
  • Learning*
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Psychological
  • Social Behavior*
  • Teaching*

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.4971158