Evolution of learning in fluctuating environments: When selection favors both social and exploratory individual learning

Elhanan Borenstein*, Marcus W. Feldman, Kenichi Aoki

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cumulative cultural change requires organisms that are capable of both exploratory individual learning and faithful social learning. In our model, an organism's phenotype is initially determined innately (by its genotypic value) or by social learning (copying a phenotype from the parental generation), and then may or may not be modified by individual learning (exploration around the initial phenotype). The environment alternates periodically between two states, each defined as a certain range of phenotypes that can survive. These states may overlap, in which case the same phenotype can survive in both states, or they may not. We find that a joint social and exploratory individual learning strategy - the strategy that supports cumulative culture - is likely to spread when the environmental states do not overlap. In particular, when the environmental states are contiguous and mutation is allowed among the genotypic values, this strategy will spread in either moderately or highly stable environments, depending on the exact nature of the individual learning applied. On the other hand, natural selection often favors a social learning strategy without exploration when the environmental states overlap. We find only partial support for the "consensus" view, which holds that individual learning, social learning, and innate determination of behavior will evolve at short, intermediate, and long environmental periodicities, respectively.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)586-602
Number of pages17
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2008
Externally publishedYes


FundersFunder number
National Institute of General Medical SciencesR01GM028016


    • Cumulative culture
    • Exploratory individual learning
    • Integer phenotype space
    • Overlap of environmental states


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