Commentary on François Osiurak and Emanuelle Reynaud’s “The Elephant in the Room: What Matters Cognitively in Cumulative Technological Culture” (2019)
In an article published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, François Osiurak and Emanuelle Reynaud (2019) have proposed a new framework to understand cumulative technological culture (CTC). They define CTC as an increase in the efficiency and complexity of tools and techniques in human populations over generations (e.g., Boyd et al., 2011; Richerson & Boyd, 2008), which distinguishes humans from other species. Two concepts seem to be central to explain CTC (Legare & Nielsen, 2015): imitation and innovation. According to Osiurak and Reynaud, previous researchers (e.g., Dean et al., 2012; Lewis & Laland, 2012; Tennie et al., 2009; Tomasello et al., 2005) have mainly focused their attention on the former to explain CTC. Although the authors do not deny the importance of imitation, which is necessary to pass on the content of technical information, they champion the idea that CTC originates in non-social cognitive skills instead of in social cognitive skills. They argue that CTC emerges uniquely because a non-social cognitive structure (i.e., technical reasoning) enables humans to acquire and develop the content. In this article I will not argue against this hypothesis; instead I will focus on two points that draw on memory expertise. The first one concerns the distinction between cognitive structure and content on which the authors base their argumentation. The second point is related to humans’ unique capacity to imitate a combination of interdependent mechanical actions, which is explained by Wynn and Coolidge (2007) through an enhancement of working memory (WM).