The mimetic transition: a simulation study of the evolution of learning by imitation
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Culturally transmitted ideas or memes must have had a large effect on the survival and fecundity of early humans. Those with better techniques of obtaining food and making tools, clothing and shelters would have had a substantial advantage. It has been proposed that memes can explain why our species has an unusually large brain and high cognitive ability: the brain evolved because of selection for the ability to imitate. This article presents an evolutionary model of a population in which culturally transmitted memes can have both positive and negative effects on the fitness of individuals. It is found that genes for increased imitative ability are selectively favoured. The model predicts that imitative ability increases slowly until a mimetic transition occurs where memes become able to spread like an epidemic. At this point there is a dramatic increase in the imitative ability, the number of memes known per individual and the mean fitness of the population. Selection for increased imitative ability is able to overcome substantial selection against increased brain size in some cases.
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