The ability to adopt new behaviors and ideas--whether learned or invented--has helped humans develop everything from stone tools and agriculture to revolutionary communications technologies like the Internet, but research shows that this ability may come with a very real cost, in an increased exposure to potentially deadly diseases.
Learning behaviors from others necessarily brings individuals, whether humans or other animals, into close contact, and so could drive the spread of socially transmitted diseases--such as tine flu--while learning through exploration and experimentation could expose individuals to previously unknown pathogens and parasites.
A study appearing in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, authored by human evolutionary biologist Collin McCabe, suggests that increased exposure to disease has played an important role in the evolution of culture both in humans and in nonhuman primates.
"This is sort of a curiosity-killed-the-cat scenario. What we're saying is that, while the ability to be a good social learner or a good innovator may evolve because it's beneficial from a cognitive standpoint, those abilities can also lead you to expose yourself to more disease."
To understand the cost associated with learning new...