Is plagiarism evolutionary?

14 Dec

The New York Times had a fascinating essay yesterday on research comparing the learning process of chimpanzees and young children (3-4 year olds). The research, chronicled in the essay by a father whose daughter was one of the test subjects, finds that children are unapologetic imitators while the monkeys were not. In short, a child will imitate the actions taken by others to achieve a task including unnecessary ones, while the monkeys will skip the unnecessary steps. While some implications of the research are discussed in the essay, I though of an additional one that is close to my own experience — plagiarism.

There are many types of plagiarism. Most people think of it as the whole scale copying of another's work. This type of plagiarism is wrong and I really cannot think of an evolutionary purpose besides immorality. However, there are other potential forms of plagiarism that are more "grey" and it strikes me that these could simply be a result of our evolutionary need to imitate. For example, if I read something that is really well done, I will often use the organization of the author to organize my response or my paraphrasing. Yet I often find myself repeating unnecessary elements of the original authors argument or organization and find it difficult to cut them out. This behavior is similar to that of the young children imitating an adult to achieve a task. In essence, I am imitating other authors and find it difficult at times to cut out extra steps. This behavior can get you into trouble (e.g. cause you to commit plagiarism) if you rely too heavily upon the original author even if there was no intent. The "grey" question is how much is too much.

Eventually, children and students and professors should develop sufficient reasoning skills that imitation is no longer a necessary strategy for adaptation. However, if it is hardwired into us at birth then it remains a very powerful cognitive device. I truly wonder if the declining ability of students to reason or problem solve has forced them to rely upon a more basic strategy for "survival," imitation, which in turn has caused an increase in plagiarism.

Link: Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. – New York Times.

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