How does cultural knowledge shape the development of human minds and, conversely, what kind of species-specific social-cognitive mechanisms have evolved to support the intergenerational reproduction of cultural knowledge? We critically examine current theories proposing a human-specific drive to identify with and imitate conspecifics as the evolutionary mechanism underlying cultural learning. We summarize new data demonstrating the selective interpretive nature of imitative learning in 14-month-olds and argue that the predictive scope of existing imitative learning models is either too broad or too narrow to account for these findings. We outline our alternative theory of a human-specific adaptation for ‘pedagogy’, a communicative system of mutual design specialized for the fast and efficient transfer of new and relevant cultural knowledge from knowledgeable to ignorant conspecifics. We show the central role that innately specified ostensive-communicative triggering cues and learner-directed manner of knowledge manifestations play in constraining and guiding selective imitation of relevant cultural knowledge that is both new and cognitively opaque to the naive learner.