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How does nonhuman primate innovation compare to our own? Many primates innovate, for example to get otherwise inaccessible food or to increase their social standing, and nonhuman primate innovation can be broken into three component steps. It begins with the initial invention, which is then transmitted to other members of the inventor’s group, and is then adopted by other individuals and maintained within the society. These three steps – invention, transmission, and maintenance – are all required for innovation and in this review, I discuss the factors (social, environmental, and cognitive) that influence each step. I also highlight the comparable and contrasting features between human and nonhuman primate innovation. In contrast to human innovations, primate innovations are relatively simple and are typically self-serving. Nonhuman primates do not invent new products explicitly for the use of others (although group members certainly copy others' innovations) and nor are their inventions artistic or abstract in nature. Intriguingly, although chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates appear to be expert at copying others’ inventions, there is far less evidence of their ability to build upon others’ inventions (i.e., to show cumulative culture). At the core of our complex cultural world is the fidelity with which we copy others and our specialism at building upon the ideas of others. Thus, it is the cumulative nature of our innovative process that has created our complex material cultural world and is a key difference between how we innovate, learn and transmit knowledge, and how our chimpanzee cousins copy one another. Another difference is our ability to work collaboratively in teams to innovate and develop new technologies, as well as our potential to cooperate in an altruistic way that allows for planning for future generations. In conclusion, perhaps primate innovation can be most usefully likened to human ‘user innovators’ who typically innovate products or techniques to fill a personal need, rather than by being driven to create a product to go to market.
This paper is a draft chapter for an interdisciplinary book on the ecosystems that promote innovation curated by the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research.